By Gary Schneider
As if we didn’t already have enough pressure on our natural resources, the P.E.I. Potato Board and Cavendish Farms are now lobbying for the provincial government to lift the existing moratorium on deep-water wells for irrigating potato crops.
Alarms are sounding across the Island in response. Looking at the threats to our groundwater and surface water should make everyone nervous about applying any additional pressure.
In 2013, there were two fish kills in the province. In the past, these have almost all been linked to agricultural runoff – a clear sign that chemicals are getting into our waterways that are toxic to fish and other living things. Last year there were also 23 cases of anoxic conditions in our waterways, killing not only fish but a host of other aquatic life including shellfish. Our rivers run red with Island soil after every rainfall. The Winter River runs dry because too much water is being extracted for the City of Charlottetown.
Nitrate levels in many wells in the province’s potato belts exceed Health Canada guidelines for drinking water. In our streams, the nitrate levels are much higher than those recommended by the federal government for wildlife. The most frightening thing about high nitrate levels is that a federal-provincial study found that in the Wilmot watershed, if farmers stopped using fertilizers immediately, it could still take 20 years for nitrates to come back down to normal levels.
These are just the most egregious examples – there are countless other threats to our water supply that happen every day, across the province. And now the potato industry wants more water.
In some ways, the argument sounds simple: we take water for irrigation, but it goes back into the same aquifer – a continuous cycle, you could almost say it was renewable. But as an Island farmer once explained to me, this is taking our most pristine groundwater and replacing it with water laden with pesticides and fertilizers. And not all the water goes back. Much is trucked away in those water-heavy potatoes, and much will evaporate.
The potato industry claims that “the science is there” to support their position. But it is important to carefully examine this claim. This same science that suggests an abundant water supply on P.E.I. has also been the basis of the unsustainable water extraction and degradation of habitat on the Winter River.
A growing number of important questions about this claim and the current policy have been raised by biologist Darryl Guignion and others. We don’t really understand the impact of such water extraction on aquatic ecosystems: the policy lacks data to support it, lacks methods of adequately monitoring streams and doesn’t consider the impact of wells on the diverse tributaries of a river system.
I don’t object to the potato industry asking for more water, in much the same way that I don’t mind when a child asked for a third and fourth piece of chocolate cake. The key will be how our government, and the citizens of this province, respond to this request, and to existing threats to our water.
The fact that the potato industry has hired Liberal party insiders to lobby our MLAs exhibits the type of behaviour that might have been acceptable in the past but will not play out well in the public today. This is an issue that is close to the hearts of Islanders, and we all need to be involved in making a decision on the moratorium.
The precautionary principle, which is now accepted in many jurisdictions, states that “If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, that the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.”
So far, we haven’t seen any proof that lifting the moratorium won’t threaten Island waters.
The high-capacity wells are expensive and will add significant up-front costs to the growers, which they hope to recoup through higher yields. The problem is that these costs would make it increasingly difficult to make decisions based on the potential environmental harm. So much money will be invested in the crops that decisions will be made based on economic realities. If it is raining and you need to spray for blight, some farmers will feel forced to spray. If the wind exceeds recommended speeds for spraying but you might lose your crop, again, some farmers will feel forced to spray. It already happens in the province, without the increased economic pressure.
The Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. would like to add its voice to the Central Queen’s Wildlife Federation and many other individuals and organizations in asking for an “open and transparent public dialogue on this issue”. There should be clear and convincing evidence that this change will not threaten our groundwater or endanger aquatic habitat.
We also feel that before any changes, we would look at other solutions for water deficits during the growing season. Growers need to demonstrate more effective soil and water conservation practices. Increasing levels of organic matter in potato fields would be a key step in helping soils retain water. According to the provincial government “only about 20 per cent of potato fields have organic matter levels above three per cent (the level commonly thought needed for good soil quality)”.
Reducing field size and enhancing buffer zones and forest cover to minimize runoff would also be beneficial.
Should government go ahead with lifting the moratorium and approving new water extraction, there will be no going back once farmers’ pay for the costly irrigation systems. The large potato farmers will become more and more beholden to the Irvings and McCains, at the expense of the aquatic environment, recreational fisheries and our drinking water.
The province can help break the cycle and support farmers' independence with policies, programs, incentives for enriching the soil, supporting healthy hydrologic cycles and protecting our natural resource. We need to think this move through and honestly consult with all Islanders before buckling to pressure from big players in the potato industry.
Gary Schneider is co-chair of the Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island.