PEI Potato Industry's Grab for More Water Doesn't Pass the Smell Test

THE GUARDIAN (Charlottetown)

P.E.I. potato industry’s grab for more water doesn’t pass smell test

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Published on January 29, 2014

By Todd Dupuis (Commentary)

When it comes to the economy, the P.E.I. potato industry may be a giver; but when it comes to the environment, it is a taker and a big one at that. Don’t forget that this industry is responsible for millions of tons of topsoil eroding from fields and into our waterways annually. This is the same industry that is responsible for the stinking dead zone anoxic events that happen annually in our estuaries. It’s the industry that is responsible for more than 40 pesticide-related fish kills, which happen like clockwork every year, some making national and international news.  The industry is responsible for nitrate contamination of our drinking water, an issue that is only getting worse.  Every person that drinks water out of his or her tap in Charlottetown is drinking chemical fertilizer.  

Thanks to the potato industry, Charlottetown’s drinking water nitrate level is three to seven times higher (depending on the government data you use) than what is considered normal background level. Remember the city’s water supply is in the countryside amidst potato fields.  Many people living near the central and western potato belts would give their eye teeth for Charlottetown’s drinking water, because their water is that much more contaminated. And while the potato industry is the cause of all these environmental issues, it takes no responsibility for cleaning it up. The industry does not have to consider the cost to the environment in its cost of doing business because it is allowed to freely impact the environment. If the industry were required to put the infrastructure in place to protect the environment, it certainly would not be worth 1 billion dollars.  

It is no secret that Island soils are degraded from years of industrial potato production. Short rotations and high erosion rates have resulted in shallow topsoil with lower organic matter — not good conditions if you want to hold moisture in the soil. The fact is that our soils are in worse shape today than they were decades ago and there is little indication this trend will change soon. Big industry knows this. The problem is that once it is no longer viable to grow potatoes in the province because of degraded soils, this big industry will move on.  

Remember — there is plenty of room to grow potatoes in Idaho and Manitoba. I can hear the industry’s swan song now: “Thanks for your soil and water but we must be moving on. Sorry for your troubles.” I do not blame the individual farmer.

Like most Islanders, I have friends and acquaintances that are good farmers who are doing their best to be good stewards of the land. Most of them are independent and making their own decisions but, in many cases, the big corporations run the show. The growing of processing potatoes on P.E.I. can be tricky business for our farmers. It goes something like this: “Sign here please. Oh yeah you’ll need to grow what we tell you. You need to add this much fertilizer and by the way you’ll need to buy it all from us. Do what we tell you or else we don’t buy your product.”

Now big Industry is making a push for more water. A well-orchestrated and well-funded campaign that has come out of the blue is designed to catch Islanders off guard. There’s a new water extraction permitting policy written by a few people in government, seemingly with plenty of industry input. They say they used good science and that P.E.I. has a lot of water. They did not consult with the public though.

I’ve read the new policy and, although I’m not a hydrologist, I do have some training in the field and 30 years of experience walking along and trying to protect Island streams and their fish. While the new policy states there is lots of water, I have lots of questions, as do many others in the conservation field.  

I know governments are under pressure from big industry, but this government should not jump into deep-well irrigation until it’s sure it has consulted with all Islanders and that their best interest is being protected. This government should ensure it is not leaving a legacy of dried-up rivers and contaminated drinking water. If industry and government are so confident in their water data and new water extraction policy, then the government should set up a standing committee so the public will have time to study the science and provide input. Why not let outside experts take a look at it? Why the rush? Remember — this is a new policy that has the potential to impact all Islanders, a policy that has had zero public input. If the science is as sound as industry contends, then let it stand the test. At the moment though, many in P.E.I. think something stinks. It smells like big industry is in the room.

Todd Dupuis is executive director, regional programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.