Prince Edward Island potato growers want deep well permits

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

Tapping into P.E.I.'s deep water aquifer is controversial practice

Prince Edward Island potato growers are hoping the new year will bring them a gushing geyser of permits to begin irrigating fields this year from deep water wells.

They say science supports it and the crops need it and without it productivity will not only decline, but lead to the depletion of P.E.I.’s $1 billion dollar potato industry.

“About 10 years ago, a one-year moratorium was put in place on deep water wells to allow the Department of Environment time to study it,” says Gary Linkletter, chairman of the P.E.I. Potato Board.

“This study revealed a very high recharge rate and that all water use on the Island consumes only seven per cent of the available recharge water.”

But the idea of sucking tonnes of water out of P.E.I.’s deep water aquifer — the groundwater resource for all Islanders — has sprouted a litany of protest from citizen’s groups, political parties and environmentalists.

“Allowing the potato industry to irrigate fields with groundwater will worsen nitrate and pesticide contamination of our highly vulnerable drinking water aquifers,’’ says Earth Action spokeswoman Sharon Labchuk. “It should not be allowed.”

Potato officials insist they need to squeeze more spuds out of each acre to remain competitive and irrigation, or a steady supply of water, is a key to success.

Irrigation permits have been around before but never drew the amount of protest as today because few farmers could afford the equipment, lack of rain wasn’t an issue, potatoes didn’t need to be a uniform size and the discovery of nitrates in drinking water had yet to fully emerge.

Western P.E.I. growers enjoyed enough precipitation during the 2013 growing season. But eastern farmers were somewhat slaked while central growers around Summerside didn’t get enough and yields were down as much as 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, North American competitors — where irrigation is a common tool — are sometimes harvesting twice the amount of spuds from one acre. A Wisconsin farmer harvests two to every one spud gleaned by an Island grower.

“Some growers in North America have improved their productivity to 400 cwt. (hundredweight) an acre,’’ says Souris area farmer Kevin MacIsaac, chair of the United Potato Growers of Canada. “We’re not even close to that in Canada (240 cwt. in P.E.I.) because we don’t have the longer growing season or access to irrigation.”

But Labchuk says government data already shows virtually all drinking water is contaminated with nitrates and the number of contaminated wells will only grow.

“Potato growers should not be given tools to worsen the problem.” Earth Action’s Sharon Labchuk

“Given that potato growers are unable to prevent drinking water contamination now, they should not be given tools to worsen the problem,’’ she says.

As far back as 1995, a provincial Department of Environment report contends: “Good quality groundwater can be managed and utilized as a renewable natural resource (as long) as the rate of groundwater extraction permitted does not exceed 50 per cent of the annual recharge rate”.

The Council of Canadians wants a legislated ban on deep well irrigation and NDP Leader Mike Redmond is also cautioning the cancelling of the moratorium.

“The Liberal government has gone rogue on the environment and it’s time to hit the brakes on deep water wells,’’ he says.

Council of Canadians chairman Leo Broderick says there is a huge danger in allowing deep well irrigation in the province.

“Our ground water is not an infinite resource and we will suffer from long-term ground water depletion.”

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister George Webster is carefully stickhandling his way through an issue many consider a done deal. When he addressed the recent P.E.I. Potato Board annual meeting he focused on pest problems and research and while he sat on the bench about deep water wells — he did offer some key words.

“A strong, sustainable potato industry requires many partners and we must ensure P.E.I. continues to rank among the best in the world,” he told growers recently at the Delta Prince Edward. “Your industry is extremely important to the provincial economy and to rural communities, but as in any industry there are challenges.”

Both MacIsaac and Linkletter hope the government will announce approval for permits before the spring planting season and are blunt about a P.E.I. potato industry without irrigation.

“We’re not competing anymore….elsewhere else the yield has gone up and if we don’t get our yields up we will be economically out of the picture.”

Ten years ago, potato production hovered around 110,000 acres. Today it’s trimmed down to 85,000 acres. Potato officials say they don’t want to go back to a larger land mass just to harvest more potatoes.

Solicitation for deep well irrigation support is expected to be presented to the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture at its Jan. 31 annual meeting.

Organizations: Department of Environment, P.E.I. Potato Board, North American Delta Prince Edward P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Canada, Wisconsin North America

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Recent comments

  • Upset in WI
    April 22, 2014 - 16:05

    Residents of P.E.I. are smart to fight these wells, and to promote responsible water usage. WI farmers are used as an example of high productivity. What the article doesn't say is that many of us in WI are very upset about potato farmers raping the land, and contaminating our drinking water. Not only do many non-farmers have to drill new wells at personal expense because our wells have gone dry, but we also have to purchase costly reverse osmosis systems to remove the contaminates from the water. Do not use WI as an example of responsible water usage.

  • Tom George Corrigan
    February 27, 2014 - 18:36

    I have bean watching the news about the water on Prince Edward Island, Well it is just like everything else has anyone notice that the streams are low and i have notice a couple of artisan wells dry up. I have seen irrigation pipes on these field shooting water out for hundred of acres and how long can that last and i wonder when the crews ships come here do they fill up . I have watched the news here last fall on the news there was a potato farmer in York that sent his potato to the Toronto fair and won first pries in all grades and i have not seen any aggregation system on his farm . From what i got out of that you do the math.

  • answers please
    January 18, 2014 - 17:07

    Does Webster Farms grow for Cavendish or McCain's? Do they lease out any land to contract growers for either of these processors? How many pesticides and fertilizers like ammonium nitrate do Webster Farms spray / spread each year? How many acres are growing each year and how many are in fallow (3 year rotation)? And how many acres are under irrigation? What are the nitrate counts in ground water in and around Webster Farms properties? And how many fish kills have occurred in the watershed(s) that their properties are located in. This type of information should be available for EVERY SINGLE FARM in PEI at the click of a mouse on a map that citizens could query.

  • Deborah Deegan
    January 16, 2014 - 10:33

    Efforts should be made to augment the collection of rainwater and reverse osmosis of seawater rather than exploit groundwater. Until the alternatives are exhausted then it makes no sense to use deepwater wells.

  • trev
    January 16, 2014 - 05:05

    I like the way there making it sound like it is a debate and looking for an answer from the people lmao ,,,every 1 knows that they will be given permits to drain our aquafirs duhhhh .....you hear all the time about the POOR farmers driving around in there fuel guzzling brand new trucks notice the plural lol how will they afford irrigation equipment surely they will not sell there new trucks lol what a joke

  • Stewart Smith
    January 15, 2014 - 16:30

    Perhaps we shouldn't grow potatoes. The cost is too high - only half our cancers can be attributed to other causes and the other half, hundreds of deaths each year, is the price we pay for growing potatoes. I'm glad I don't live in the death zone (the potato belt).

  • candrayo
    January 15, 2014 - 14:57

    How George Webster gets away with what he does is beyond me!!!

  • candrayo
    January 15, 2014 - 14:54

    HEY FARMERS….here is a simple concept…try being nice to Mother Nature and maybe She will be nice to you!!!! Then we would not need this discussion at all!

  • intobed
    January 15, 2014 - 14:17

    Yet more clear evidence that the potato farmers don't care about PEI, or the people who live here. Our farmers are now CEO's, whose only motive is profit. PEI's methods of farming are broken, and must change.

  • Back Scratcher
    January 15, 2014 - 11:48

    Interesting that one of the most vocal supporters of the HST was the Federation of Agriculture. Folks, there ain't no way the government is going to turn this request down!

  • UPWESTER
    January 15, 2014 - 11:30

    We, as Islanders, must stand up to George Webster and his cronies and stop this insanity. Corporate farms are being pressured by the big processors on PEI to grow a bigger and bigger french fry.Don't kid yourself, there is nothing in this for Islanders except the sad legacy of poisened water, high cancer rates and life as we knew it on the Gentle Island becoming a vast wasteland. We need to support the NDP, Council of Canadians, Sharon Labchuk and enviornmentalists to stop this once and for all. Write your MLA,Premier and anyone else you can think of before they go ahead and allow this disaster. You know Webster et al are going to approve this, they never deny the "Frozen French Fry Crowd". The reason you are not competing anymore is because we don't have the seed and table stock market anymore. We are grown bigasize french fries.

  • Bonnie
    January 15, 2014 - 11:15

    No, no, no!!! This should not be allowed on our precious Island which has a very limited water resource, and which is already being poisoned -- our streams and underground water table supply -- by industrial potato farming. Industrial potato farming rapes the land and water each year and Islanders need to say no more of this madness and desecration of what has become a fantasy island. Many Islanders and tourists alike believe the fantasy that this is a "gentle" island. It cannot live up to its "gentle" description as long as industrial farming continues to rape its land and water supply. NO, NO, NO to industrial use of our water supply to irrigate potatoes.

  • Quiet Observer
    January 15, 2014 - 11:05

    People should take note of facts before they take everything said by Leo Broderick and Sharon Labchuk. The article states that "About 10 years ago, a one-year moratorium was put in place on deep water wells to allow the Department of Environment time to study it...This study revealed a very high recharge rate and that all water use on the Island consumes only seven per cent of the available recharge water... As far back as 1995, a provincial Department of Environment report contends: “Good quality groundwater can be managed and utilized as a renewable natural resource (as long) as the rate of groundwater extraction permitted does not exceed 50 per cent of the annual recharge rate””. Those are the facts from Government studies. The fear mongering by Labchuk (not all PEI groundwater is contaminated by nitrates by any means) and Brokerick is for drama, not for fact.

  • Save our Health
    January 15, 2014 - 10:21

    When will this government put Islander health ahead of chemical farmers? The facts are there - pesticides KILL and PEI leads the country in cancer rates. Now the government is considering increasing the chemical pollution of our aquifers by allowing farmers to have deep wells??? Speak up people. The life you save may be your own.

    • Freelance
      January 15, 2014 - 11:59

      Good fear-mongering. There is no scientific evidence anywhere to support your statement.

    • Show me the science.
      January 15, 2014 - 12:47

      Yes, pesticides kill pests and PEI has a high cancer rate. Where are the studies to show the correlation between pesticide use and cancer rates? If this were the case, wouldn't every farmer who sprays potatoes have cancer. This is not the case. Wouldn't everyone around a sprayed field have cancer? This is also not the case. Cancer is a mysterious disease with little rhyme or reason behind it. I'm sure our exposure to all things chemical, synthetic, and toxic contribute to our cancer rates, and it is much less black and white than pesticides are responsible for the cancer rates on PEI.

  • yolanda
    January 15, 2014 - 09:05

    Something is puzzling here. It has been reported that potato farmers have had several profitable years in a row now. Also it was reported that reduction in acreage seeded has brought about better prices, actually was a decision to bring about better prices. Now we hear ground water depletion is needed to increase production. Would that mean then that further reduction in seeded acreage would be needed to keep the prices up ---- If growing potatoes under the current water restrictions are profitable, (as reported) it must be pure greed that drives this demand. -- This demand so well understood and unfortunately usually endorsed by this government.

  • flat earth society
    January 15, 2014 - 08:47

    This is a done deal. Some potato growers have already purchased new irrigation equipment in the last few weeks.

    • McCain
      January 15, 2014 - 15:39

      Exactly. Im not sure what is going to stop something that is already underway

    • candrayo
      January 15, 2014 - 19:49

      Farmers are few…..WE ARE MANY…there is always something we can do!!!!!!!!! STAND UP …..that is all we need to do…we just need to STAND UNITED against them! I am sure the Plan B Protest will come to mind really quick for some, and hopefully this cause will draw many more protestors this time around in protecting Mother Nature if need be!!! Looking like it might need be time to protest soon…..time will tell…though I know that the deal is done with government and farmers…doesn't mean it has to be done for US!!!! This is our Island too!!!

  • Worried Islander
    January 15, 2014 - 08:41

    I hope our government will think long and hard before approving this measure. We Islanders will be in a sad position. Already, our wells are filled with nitrates and forced to install reverse osmosis machines. We live in a province where many cannot drink the water from their own taps. I agree with the comments of te previous posters, I hope our government listens to its people and not just industry.

  • NO! NO! NO!
    January 15, 2014 - 07:56

    This is outrageous! On an island that relies solely on ground water to support the most densely populated province in the country, drawing millions of litres away to support factory farming is the height of stupidity. Have no doubt that these measures are being proposed by corporate interests that care for nothing but maximizing short term profits and they are happily willing to sacrifice your children's and grandchldren's futures to do it. This must be stopped!

    • Romeo
      January 15, 2014 - 08:30

      Who is going to pay for residential wells to be redrilled when the deep wells drain them

  • Randy Campbell
    January 15, 2014 - 07:44

    This is only one of many agricultural business models, and as we know from the statistics - its failing. Farmers need more land, deeper wells, bigger machinery, etc compete. I think that's fine as long as (a) People who pursue this business model subsidize those that innovating. It's very clear that the MOST food per acre is produced on small-scale organic farms - and that the food from small-scale farms still feeds 70% of the world. And (b) ground water contamination is not worsened. We already know it's horrible. Nitrate contamination has already made drinking water undrinkable in some parts of the Island. And (c) we consider the effect of the deep water wells on the habitat for non-human animals within the watershed. ... I support our farmers - but I won't support it on the backs on my grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

    • don
      January 15, 2014 - 08:38

      randy i agree with you 100% but we all know that profit comes before the health and our water to drink. and the money farmers will get what they want and they will not care about the water. but i would like to see the farmers using the water from the well they have for there homes. and it has been proven that watering your land during the day is NO GOOD it is stupid but does the farmers care? do they care when they drain a stream of water so the fish die? do they care when they plant to close to the streams? answer to all of the above is NO they do not care all that maters is PROFIT. but when the poison all the water on PEI tell me how are they going to water the land then use bottled water?