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Wetland conservation groups are raising alarms about an August approval granted by the province to agricultural producers to pump surface water from the Dunk River.
In a letter posted on the Facebook Page of the P.E.I. Watershed Alliance, the group’s chairman, Mike Durant, called the approval a “short-sighted approach” from government to difficulties facing agricultural producers over the course of the dry summer.
Durant said the approval to pump from the Dunk River, which runs roughly between Breadalbane and the Bedeque area, occurred when the stream water level was below the government-set maintenance level of 45 cm.
“The King Government’s decision to allow pumping, when river levels were below maintenance flow, went against the conditions outlined in the Environmental Protection Act Watercourse and Wetland Protection regulations and water extraction permitting policy,” Durant said in the letter.
“Environmental sustainability must be a priority. Unfortunately, we do not feel that this is the viewpoint of the King Government as demonstrated by the Dunk River surface water extraction approval.”
PEI Watershed Alliance was disappointed to learn that in late August the province allowed the extraction of surface...Posted by PEI Watershed Alliance on Thursday, 17 September 2020
The letter also suggested that agricultural industry had “undue influence” over government decision-makers, in relation to the decision to allow the pumping permit.
The permit was granted to five agricultural producers – Smith Farms, Greenfield Farms, Countryview Farms, McCardle Bros Farms and HavenLee Farms – for the period of Aug. 19-26.
Water levels recorded on the province’s open data portal shows the water levels on the Dunk River dropping to a low point of 33.7 cm on Aug. 20 before climbing up to 42 cm on Aug. 25.
However, water flow levels have varied in previous years and have reached lower points than 33.7 cm in August 2019 and August 2018.
The government-set maintenance levels currently guide permitting policy for pumping from rivers. The province’s 2013 water extraction permitting policy states that water extraction is only permitted when stream flows are above the government-set maintenance level.
The Guardian made multiple requests for an interview with Environment Minister Natalie Jameson. These requests were declined by a representative from her department.
An email statement from the department said the summer brought drought to farmers in P.E.I., and the pumping was allowed to the five producers on an “emergency basis”.
The email stated the permit limited the water withdrawal rate to 800 imperial gallons per minute.
“Growers were instructed to stagger their pumping for that week, and water levels were actively monitored,” the statement said.
The Guardian reached out to all five producers. Reached by phone, one representative from McCardle Bros declined to comment. No other calls were returned by deadline.
In a media statement, Green MLA Lynne Lund said she was concerned about the decision to grant the pumping permits.
“This is not the first time (that) government has issued permits with little thought given to the impacts,” Lund said in the statement.
“We have seen government issue permits for a developer to destroy sand dunes at St. Margaret’s Beach for a walkway when one already existed and to remove part of an old piece of Acadian forest, of which there are not many examples left on P.E.I., to make way for more traffic lanes at the corner of St. Peter’s Road.”
In an interview, Durant said watershed groups were not consulted prior to the decision to grant the emergency permit.
"When the flow changes in a river, that changes the food supply for all the organisms that are in there, the moisture levels in the riparian zone are affected," Durant said.
Durant said he understands that the 2020 summer has been a particularly difficult growing season for farmers.
“We get that. We recognize that. But we need our agricultural sector to be sustainable from an economic standpoint and also from an environmental standpoint," he said.