PEI Irrigation Wells Remain Contentious

MSN NEWS - Prince Edward Island
Updated: Thu, 30 Jan 2014 13:44:24 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Irrigation wells remain contentious issue

Debate continues over whether the province should lift its decade-old moratorium on high-capacity wells for the potato industry.

The P.E.I. Potato Board is asking for the ban to be lifted, saying access to more water will improve potato quality and size and will help growers stay competitive.

The board briefed some Liberal MLAs Wednesday on the need for high-capacity irrigation wells. They're also relying on the science and studies carried out by the P.E.I. environment department.

P.E.I. Environment Minister Janice Sherry said that because the potato board has asked for the moratorium to be lifted, it should educate Islanders on the issue.

"We are not saying that the potato board provide the science. What we're saying is that they need to engage the public with education around why, how, whens of the process. What it means to their industry."

But Progressive Conservative Leader Steven Myers said he doesn't believe the environment department has released all its information on studies and research.

Bevan-Baker met with Sherry

"At this point, I can't support this moving forward given the fact that Janice Sherry has important information that she refuses to share," said Myers.

"She said, 'Yes you guys get all Islanders to agree, and then we'll go public with it.' Really, one has to wonder when she said that is this a done deal?"

Green Party of P.E.I. Leader Peter Bevan-Baker met with Sherry to discuss the issue and has similar concerns.

While Bevan-Baker was pleased Sherry agreed to meet with him, he wasn't pleased with what she had to say.

Bevan-Baker said he can't understand why the minister refused to pass over research done on the issue.

And he has serious concerns about why Sherry asked the potato board to conduct a public education campaign.

"I think that's just a desperately bad way of going forward. I think the minister has to not let the potato board lead this," said Bevan-Baker.

"The government has to lead this. It has to be a process which allows for public input. It has to be across the Island and it should be done with a standing committee of either health or environment."

Bevan-Baker said Government hasn't provided enough information for him to decide whether high-capacity wells should be allowed on a limited basis.

He said the province needs to develop a comprehensive water policy.

No rush, says Ghiz

The potato board will brief the PC caucus Thursday. On Friday, Bruce Raymond, the environment department's manager of watershed management, will present the province's water-extraction studies to the annual meeting of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

Sherry said the studies will be posted on the department's website after the presentation.

Meanwhile, Premier Robert Ghiz is stepping back from the issue, saying there is no rush to lift the moratorium.

"I've seen information on both sides and I'm not satisfied one way or the other. But I can say this, that we are not going to make a decision that scientifically will demonstrate that it's going to hurt our groundwater supply," Ghiz said.

Ghiz said he is feeling pressure from both potato farmers and Irving-owned Cavendish Farms.

"We have a potato industry that's contributes huge dollars to our province. Our number-one employer in the province is Cavendish Farms, but, at the same time, our groundwater is an extremely important resource."

The premier expects a legislative committee will hold hearings on the issue.

'Astronomical amount of water'

P.E.I. has about 100 high-capacity wells right now and more could be added, Raymond said.

"Since we're only using seven per cent of what the policy says is safe to extract, then, yes, a good number of wells could certainly be safely added to P.E.I.," he said.

"The policy is set up to protect wildlife habitat, to make sure there's a certain amount of water in the streams, to have reasonable access. That it's predictable access and that all of this is scientifically supported by studies both on P.E.I. and elsewhere."

But some worry adding more wells would be too risky.

"They're looking at taking an astronomical amount of water out of the ground, which will not only affect the river water, but it could affect drinking water for Islanders also," said Todd Dupuis executive director of regional programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

"You know, they have their experts, they say it's all fine, we have lots of water, don't worry. Well I know lots of experts too that are cringing at this new policy. So my suggestion is to step back, throw it to a standing committee. Let's have a debate about it."