EDMONTON — Alberta's environment minister says he doesn't remember having talks with food conglomerate Nestle about setting up a water exchange.
"Alberta's water is not for sale and will not be for sale," Rob Renner told the house during question period Wednesday.
"The fact Nestle has talked about being in talks with Alberta — I have no reason to believe is wrong," he added.
"There are all kinds of corporations and lobby groups that are constantly in discussion with the government on both sides of the issue."
Outside the legislature Renner said that while any changes to policy won't happen without consulting citizens, a water exchange is an idea that's time is coming.
"There needs to be at some point in time a healthy discussion about how we create the circumstances that will (encourage) the conservation of water beyond voluntary measures," he said.
"I think there will come a day where we need to value water, whether that means in the form of a regulatory regime or whether it means in the form of some kind of market."
Renner made the comments after the chairman of Nestle said in a report out of Switzerland that his company is talking to Alberta about setting up a water exchange.
In the report, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said Alberta is fertile ground to commodify water along the lines of selling barrels of oil.
Given that land rights and water rights are treated separately in Alberta, it's easier to set up such a system, he said.
Brabeck-Letmathe also said there's already fierce competition for water in the province, pitting farmers against oilsands operators.
That prompted sharp questions to Renner in the house from Alberta Liberal environment critic Laurie Blakeman.
"Why would this government throw our farmers into a pitched battle against multinational food giants to gain control of water, whether through water market or through (direct) sale?," asked Blakeman.
"This government would never pit farmers against the industry," Renner shot back. "The policy and the laws of Alberta are made here in this legislature, not by some European over in Geneva."
Brabeck-Letmathe, however, may be more than just "some European."
Nestle, based in Switzerland, is the world's largest food company with 280,000 workers in 86 countries. More than 6,000 brands of food are under its control, including bottled water, pizza, dog food, condensed milk, frozen foods, and ice cream.
Brabeck-Letmathe is also on the board of directors of Exxon Mobil Corp., which through its subsidiaries is a major player in Alberta's economy-driving oilsands.
He is also vice-chairman of global Europe-based banking-investment giant Credit Suisse.
Water is a contentious and divisive issue in Alberta.
Buoyed by the growing oilsands industry, the provincial economy has reached new heights in the last decade, pushing the population well over three million.
But the building boom has put a strain on its freshwater resources, particularly in the drought-prone southern half.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the Nestle talks are the first step toward large multinationals squeezing out farmers and small-business owners for a diminishing natural resource.
"The revelation by Nestle that they've been in consultations with this government to establish a water market is frankly quite frightening," said Mason.
"In a market for water, those with the deepest pockets will be able to control the water. That means companies like Nestle and companies in the oil business will be able to outbid farmers for scarce water.
"This is potentially the first step in the export of water to the United States."
Paul Hinman of the Wildrose Alliance said Nestle is the bitter fruit of recent land-planning changes enacted two years ago by Premier Ed Stelmach's government.
Under the revised Alberta Land Stewardship Act, cabinet has more power to unilaterally alter water rights and other licences in order to effectively use provincial resources for the benefit of all.
"There's a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation that this government is doing with its legislation to empower it to make decisions, whether it's water rights, mineral rights or anything else," said Hinman.
"They're putting themselves in the position of power to make those decisions despite the will and desire of Albertans."