Water dominates the discussion

Andy Walker
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Capital beat column

There are three words that are now dominating discussions in letters to the editor, social media and coffee shops across the province – deep-water wells.

Basically, these are irrigation wells – whether they are for agriculture or golf courses. Like many of their counterparts across the country, Island potato producers began to look at irrigation in the 1990s in an attempt to ensure their crop received enough moisture in a growing environment   dominated by a changing climate.

Alarmed at the possible impact on the Island’s water supply, the Pat Binns government instituted a one-year moratorium on any further deep-water wells in 2003. Originally, the ban was supposed to last one year to give the Department of Environment time to determine any potential impact. The studies were dome but resulted in little action – the moratorium has continued and the issue faded onto the backburner.

Fast forward to last summer. After two consecutive summers of watching their crops shrivel in the field, the potato industry was out of patience.

They started a lobby aimed at convincing the government to end the ban. Potato Board chair, Gary Linkletter, tested the waters, charging the government essentially was too scared politically to reopen the file.

The lobby picked up speed after the harvest was in the warehouse and it looked like the effort could soon bear fruit. There were rumours the government could make a decision close to the Christmas holiday period.

That didn’t happen, but the lobby against the measure began to intensify.  Environmental group, opposition parties and the National Farmers Union came out against the issue.

The P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture has now supported an end to the ban following a closed-door session at its annual meeting in late January.

The Potato Board and Cavendish Farms responded by hiring a consulting firm featuring two high-profile Liberals – Chris LeClair (the former chief of staff to Premier Robert Ghiz) and former MLA Cynthia King. Their job was to lobby MLAs to end the moratorium. 

So far at least, the move seems to have backfired. It has become a lightning rod for criticism. The Conservatives wanted to call the consultants before the Standing Committee on Agriculture, but that request was voted down.

Environment Minister Janice Sherry (who will have to make the final decision) said it was essentially up to the potato industry to make the case to the Island public. That brought calls for her resignation, saying she had mishandled the file.

The issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. It is likely to be a major topic not only before the committee but when the legislature reconvenes in April. Potato growers who hoped to have the infrastructure for irrigation in place for this season are sure to be disappointed.

In fact, the closer the clock ticks down to the next election (now slated for the spring of 2016), the more determined the government will be to keep the issue on the backburner. 

 

Organizations: Department of Environment, P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, Potato Board Conservatives Standing Committee on Agriculture

Geographic location: Iceland, Farmers Union

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