Water is top of mind as Atlantic agrologists meet in Stanley Bridge

Colin MacLean colin.maclean@tc.tc
Published on July 22, 2014

A farmer irrigates his field in western Queens County in this Guardian file photo.

©Guardian photo by Brian McInnis

STANLEY BRIDGE - In the battle for Prince Edward Island's groundwater, scientists are largely caught in the middle of the proverbial tug-of-war.

These are the men and women who produce the data that the various interest groups use to support their points of view.  

Can the Island support both deep-water irrigation and ensure the security of the population's supply? How much nitrogen is seeping into our water? What are its effects? How can we minimize any risk?

The questions are nearly endless and the resources devoted to the subject are oh so finite.

Which is why water is at the top of everyone's mind at the Atlantic Agrology Workshop, a conference involving dozens of agrologists from the Atlantic provinces, happening July 21 and 22 in Stanley Bridge.

The host organization decided to focus the conference on water this year, specifically because it is such a hot topic on P.E.I., said Brian Beaton, a spokesperson for the P.E.I. Institute of Agrologists.

"If we don't debate and find some common ground we're not going to make any movement on whatever the issue is. In this case on P.E.I., it's the use of water and how that interacts with agricultural production," said Beaton.

The conference has a host of speakers scheduled on various topics, including George Somers, manager of drinking water, land and systems protection for the Department of Agriculture.

His talk focused on a research project he'd participated in years ago involving tracing nitrogen levels in agricultural fields through the various seasons.

They found that a great deal of the nitrogen introduced to fields in the fall, in preparation for the next year's planting, is actually lost over the winter months.

So the question became, how do Island farmers retain those nutrients so they can best benefit their crops?

There are various ways being examined, said Somers, most notably plowing potato fields in the spring rather than the fall and different kinds of catchment crops.

Yefang Jiang, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Charlottetown, presented his findings on a project that involved using computer models to predict what effect an increase in irrigation would have on various watersheds.

Jiang told his audience that while the models generally predicted an overall decrease in water flow in the tested watersheds during July and August, the science was still out on whether those water systems can handle the reductions.

He also said that the data used in the models was several years old and in need of updating.

 "What kind of reduction is acceptable? That's the big question. We don't know that and I don't think other people know that very well. The only thing we can do is ask the fish how much (water) they can lose," he said,

Water use, specifically from deep-water wells for irrigation, has been a topic of much discussion on the Island of late.

Many in the potato industry want the moratorium lifted, arguing that irrigation would increase the quality of their product and stabilize their yields.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have urged a continuation of the ban and a tightening of the rules surrounding water usage. They say P.E.I.'s groundwater supply is fragile enough that it needs all the protection it can get.

The provincial government has so far managed to avoid taking sides on the issue.

Its response to date has been to promise the development of a provincial water act, a move that has placated both sides for now.

While the P.E.I. Association of Agrologists has refrained from taking a side in the argument, they are attempting to promote the voice of pure science in the discussion, said Beaton.

"It's important that we get to the core science," said Beaton.

"We have to look at each other's side, understand each other's issues and concerns and try to make some movement and come to a common stance acceptable to everyone," he added.

Anyone who is interested in attending Tuesday's final meetings of the conference are welcome.

One of the highlights will be a panel discussion called Bridging the Gap, which will be moderated by retired CBC journalist Ian Petrie. It will involve industry people, farmers, environmentalists and community leaders in a discussion on water usage.

It will take place at the Stanley Bridge Resort from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 22.