Chris LeClair. FILE PHOTO
Board has hired premier’s former chief of staff to facilitate MLA meetings
The P.E.I. Potato Board and Cavendish Farms have hired a former chief of staff to the premier to facilitate lobby meetings with MLAs in an effort to lift the moratorium on deep-water irrigation wells.
Potato farmers are pushing for access to deep-water wells to supply their fields with water for supplemental irrigation.
They’ve hired Chris LeClair with the consulting firm Policy Intel Inc. to co-ordinate meetings with as many provincial MLAs as possible to lobby in favour of lifting the current moratorium on irrigation wells. LeClair served as Premier Robert Ghiz’s chief of staff from 2003, when he was opposition leader, until just after the 2011 election.
Greg Donald, general manager for the P.E.I. Potato Board, said LeClair’s consulting firm is merely acting as a facilitator for the MLA meetings. The initiative itself is being led by the industry.
He said he did not have any concerns over LeClair’s previous involvement with the MLAs while working in the premier’s office.
“Quite frankly, he was helping us with setting up the meetings, as far as the logistics. Beyond that, this initiative has been ours, the Potato Board, and most certainly we have been working together for parts of it … with Cavendish (Farms) as well.”
Allowing farmers to drill deep-water wells for irrigation is a controversial idea that has some environmental groups raising serious concern over possible impacts on P.E.I.’s groundwater levels and potential for nitrate contamination.
But the P.E.I. Potato Board says it has scientific evidence showing the annual recharge rate for groundwater in P.E.I. is quite high and that increasing the use of groundwater for irrigation of crops would use only a small fraction of available groundwater resources.
It’s this information they want to share with P.E.I.’s elected officials.
“We are making an effort to make sure the facts are told about P.E.I., our groundwater, our recharge rate, and what we’re being told by the experts is that there’s ample water to be used for supplemental irrigation,” Donald said.
“We want to make sure that, quite frankly, anybody that will listen, will (hear) the facts that we have about that, why and also about the resource in an effort to have the moratorium removed.”
But Opposition MLA Colin LaVie believes this is a conversation that should happen in front of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry.
He sent a letter to the chair of the committee, asking for LeClair and former MLA Cynthia King, who is also working with Policy Intel on this initiative, to appear before the committee.
“These two individuals asked to make a presentation before the MLAs and I thought it would be a good conversation to happen in a public forum,” LaVie said in an interview Wednesday.
“Personally I have curiosity as to why these two would be selected given their relationship with the government, but hopefully they’ll put all the facts on the table for us. This is an important issue to many Islanders.”
Donald said some potato farmers need access to more water in order to keep pace with competitors in the mid-western United States. He stressed farmers would not push for this initiative if they believed it would harm P.E.I.’s groundwater.
“I know the industry doesn’t want it if it can’t be done responsibly,” Donald said.