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UPEI researcher wants to measure impacts of high-capacity wells


CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. —

A UPEI researcher is proposing the province provide an exemption to a moratorium on high-capacity wells in order to research their impacts on Island rivers and on agricultural production.

The four-year research project could also provide some answers to the question of whether the P.E.I. government should maintain a moratorium on high-capacity wells, used for agriculture.

During a Thursday meeting of the standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability, UPEI biologist and Canada Research Chair Michael van den Heuvel told MLAs the study would focus on water flows required to sustain ecosystems within P.E.I. streams. He said the research would include an agricultural component as well.

Van den Heuvel was asked by Green MLA Lynne Lund about the research questions he hoped to answer.

"What is the critical amount of flow we have to keep in P.E.I. streams to protect P.E.I. environment?" van den Heuvel said.

"A secondary question to that of course, which is very important, is could the use of irrigation actually have huge environmental benefits in terms of nutrient reductions?"

Van den Heuvel said an exemption to an existing moratorium on high-capacity wells, under the the province’s new Water Act, would need to be granted in order to start the project. The Water Act has yet to be proclaimed.

If approved, the research project would develop out of an existing project that has been measuring municipal water extraction in the Coles Creek watershed since 2016. Van den Heuvel said there have been ongoing discussions with government and industry partners about expanding the project to include agricultural impacts of high capacity wells since 2017. Cavendish Farms and the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture are two of the confirmed industry partners, as are three universities.

"The big question for P.E.I. is nutrients in irrigation. So nitrogen loss from soils is the highest impact environmental issue on P.E.I., in my opinion, with dozens of estuaries going anoxic each year,” Van den Heuvel said.

An anoxic event occurs when oxygen levels in rivers drop substantially, caused by farming activity, wastewater management, or other activity.

On the subject of the high-capacity well moratorium, Van den Heuvel said he believed there is no scientific basis for maintaining it and referred to it as a “social decision.”

"You have a finite amount of water. What you're using it for makes no difference," he said.

"You can have all of your water within a watershed being taken by agriculture, you can have all of it being taken by municipal. The amount of water is still the same."

For years, conservation groups have warned that high capacity wells could have a negative impact on P.E.I.’s aquifers.

During a previous meeting of the same standing committee in January, three representatives of the Department of Environment, Water and Climate Change stated that agricultural irrigation only accounts for 0.6 billion litres per year, or 1.6 per cent of total groundwater usage – far less than the water used in livestock, industrial or for residential usage.

Despite this presentation, members of the legislature voted to pass a motion during the spring calling for a moratorium on the construction of new agricultural holding ponds. The current Minister of the Environment, Natalie Jameson, voted in favour of the non-binding motion. Several holding ponds were constructed over the spring, which would be prohibited once the new Water Act regulations are enacted.

On Thursday, P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture president Ron Maynard and executive director Robert Godfrey also spoke before the standing committee.

They urged MLAs to allow van den Heuvel’s research to proceed.

But the two also vocally advocated for a repeal of the high-capacity well moratorium. They argued the unusually dry growing conditions seen this summer were evidence of the need to provide growers with more options for irrigation.

"We want to recognize that these sections of the draft regulations are discriminatory towards the industry and should be reviewed with a critical eye because producers need water today,” Maynard said.

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