Islanders must not allow corporate agriculture to irrigate with deep-well technology to cope with water problems it helped create, says a veteran university professor and long-time P.E.I. environmental advocate.
© Guardian photo
The Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. held its annual meeting in Charlottetown last week, then turned to guest presentations, including a talk by Daryl Guignion about deep-well irrigation for agriculture.
Guignion is a wildlife biologist, researcher, and retired UPEI associate professor of biology with a special focus on water ecosystems.
“It is an area that is truly unexplored in many scientific ways,” he said.
Creating a model of what might happen with deep-well irrigation is useless if there is insufficient data and science to back up the assumptions and data put into the model, he said.
“Modelling is not science,” he warned.
The relationship of groundwater to P.E.I’s rivers and streams is partially understood.
“One hundred per cent of the water in the summertime in the streams is from springs, more or less,” said Guignion.
The springs are fed from the water table.
Rivers run red with silt that clogs the bottom and nitrate levels in streams are going up without control, he lamented.
“I think the poor land stewardship, the degradation is beyond belief,” said Guignion. “From my perspective, in the last 10 years I think we have had a decrease in soil and water conservation practices. It is just appalling.
“If we ever get to the point where we can be bullied into giving (deep groundwater) away before we know what we have, this is very, very bad for all Islanders and future Islanders,” he warned.
“We need a water policy for P.E.I. The principal goal has to be an abundance of good water, high quality and clean. As far as I’m concerned, this (allowing deep-well irrigation) is sort of a reward for poor soil and water conservation. We have let some of our gems of rivers degrade to the point that to me, it’s almost heartbreaking.”
Guignion said there is a complex network of natural factors affected by water levels in streams and rivers, he said.
When water levels go down, young fish that get food and protection from the shallow edge are forced to the deeper middle of the river, where they are eaten by the big adult fish that lurk there in place all season, for example.
A recent study of water levels affecting fish just looked at those grown adult fish and showed no populaiton change, ignorning the death of mamy young fish, he said.
Fish moving upstream to spawn depend on sufficient water levels to get back down, along with the new young fish at just about the time that maximum agriculture irrigation would be expected, said Guignion.
A down-stream move of tens of thousands of gaspereau fish in decades past helped sustain the lifecycle of bigger fish and human harvest further along, he said.
“Scientific knowledge of the annual water requirements of aquatic organisms is needed,” said Guignion. “If you are going to develop government policy (on deep-well irrigation), you should have a very good handle on the organisms it is going to impact.”
Do not look to examples of deep-well irrigation from other areas like Idaho or Alberta, he said.
Those areas have a better climate and better soil for potatoes so P.E.I. can’t base it’s decisions on what the U.S. potatoes growers are doing, said Guignion.
“If you look at the damage that they are doing to their aquifers and what is happening in the United States, I would say they are going to be looking north very shortly for more water,” he said.
“You often get misleading information to suggest that we have all this water that is falling all over P.E.I., there is copious quantities available for use ... there really isn’t copious quantities available. Most of our streams in the last two or three summers have gotten really, really low.”
Much of the water landing as precipitation on P.E.I. is not seeping back into soil and thus recharging the groundwater, he warned.
It runs off exposed agriculture land in winter and into streams, into storm sewers in urban developed areas, and wetlands that once also helped recharge the water table have been destroyed to a degree that has never been scientifically quantified on P.E.I., said Guignion.