Chilean utilities with water rights should not be permitted to resell treated wastewater, according to Carlos Araya, the administrator of the Copiapó basin groundwater user group (Casub) in northern region III.
Some utilities have allegedly planned to sell treated water to mining companies rather than returning them to rivers for use in agriculture. This is not the way the water rights were originally intended to work, Araya told BNamericas.
"This is wrong. They have water rights, the use of some cubic meters, but it belongs to the citizens, and they are supposed to return it to the rivers, creating a cycle," he said.
In January, national agriculture association SNA began judicial proceedings against national sanitation service authority SISS, which authorized utilities to sell treated wastewater.
The association argues SISS erroneously interpreted Chilean laws by allowing utilities to sell the water, saying that water rights granted to utilities require treated water to be returned to its original source.
Part of the issue lies in the way water rights changed in 1981, which meant they were no longer tied to a specific purpose, whether it be mining, potable water or irrigation, and water came to be thought of as consumptive, according to Araya.
"Today it's not the same. You can have a square meter and a well and take 1,000l and do whatever you want," Araya said.
A key case that deals specifically with Santiago water utility Aguas Andinas is currently before the supreme court, BNamericas reported previously.
SNA has warned against the precedent set if the court rules for SISS, noting that there are 265 wastewater treatment plants in the country that could start selling treated water, striking an "irreversible blow" to agriculture.
SISS and national water authority DGA should not be supporting this interpretation and Casub is investigating ways to change the policy, and will go to the courts if necessary, Araya said.