Deep-well irrigation not well understood, says professor

Nigel Armstrong
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Daryl Guignion

Islanders must not allow corporate agriculture to irrigate with deep-well technology to cope with water problems it helped create, says a veteran university professor.

The Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. held its annual meeting in Charlottetown this week, then turned to guest presentations, including a talk by Daryl Guignion about deep-well irrigation for agriculture.

Guignion is a wildlife biologist, researcher, and retired UPEI associate professor of biology with a special focus on water ecosystems.

“It is an area that is truly unexplored in many scientific ways,” he said.

Creating a model of what might happen with deep-well irrigation is useless if there is insufficient data and science to back up the assumptions and data put into the model, he said.

“Modelling is not science,” he warned.

The relationship of groundwater to P.E.I’s rivers and streams is partially understood.

“One hundred per cent of the water in the summertime in the streams is from springs, more or less,” said Guignion.

The springs are fed from the water table.

Rivers run red with silt that clogs the bottom and nitrate levels in streams are going up without control, he lamented.

“I think the poor land stewardship, the degradation is beyond belief,” said Guignion. “From my perspective, in the last 10 years I think we have had a decrease in soil and water conservation practices. It is just appalling.

“If we ever get to the point where we can be bullied into giving (deep groundwater) away before we know what we have, this is very, very bad for all Islanders and future Islanders,” he warned.

“We need a water policy for P.E.I. The principal goal has to be an abundance of good water, high quality and clean.

“As far as I’m concerned, this (allowing deep-well irrigation) is sort of a reward for poor soil and water conservation.

“We have let some of our gems of rivers degrade to the point that to me, it’s almost heartbreaking,” said Guignion.

There is a complex network of natural factors affected by water levels in streams and rivers, he said.

When water levels go down, young fish that get food and protection from the shallow edge are forced to the deeper middle of the river where they are eaten by the big adult fish that lurk there in place all season, for example.

“If we ever get to the point where we can be bullied into giving (deep groundwater) away before we know what we have, this is very, very bad for all Islanders and future Islanders." Daryl Guignion

A recent study of water levels affecting fish just looked at those grown adult fish and showed no populaiton change, ignorning the death of mamy young fish, he said.

Fish moving upstream to spawn depend on sufficient water levels to get back down, along with the new young fish at just about the time that maximum agriculture irrigation would be expected, said Guignion.

A down-stream move of tens of thousands of gaspereau fish in decades past helped sustain the lifecycle of bigger fish and human harvest further along, he said.

“Scientific knowledge of the annual water requirements of aquatic organisms is needed,” said Guignion.

“If you are going to develop government policy (on deep-well irrigation), you should have a very good handle on the organisms it is going to impact,” said Guignion.

Do not look to examples of deep-well irrigation from other areas like Idaho or Alberta, he said.

Those areas have a better climate and better soil for potatoes so P.E.I. can’t base it’s decisions on what the U.S. potatoes growers are doing, said Guignion.

“If  you look at the damage that they are doing to their aquifers and what is happening in the United States, I would say they are going to be looking north very shortly for more water,” he said.

“You often get misleading information to suggest that we have all this water that is falling all over P.E.I., there is copious quantities available for use.

“Man, there really isn’t copious quantities available,” said Guignion. “Most of our streams in the last two or three summers have gotten really, really low.”

Much of the water landing as precipitation on P.E.I. is not seeping back into soil and thus recharging the groundwater, he warned.

It runs off exposed agriculture land in winter and into streams, into storm sewers in urban developed areas, and wetlands that once also helped recharge the water table have been destroyed to a degree that has never been scientifically quantified on P.E.I., said Guignion.

Organizations: Environmental Coalition of P.E.I.

Geographic location: Charlottetown, United States, Idaho Alberta

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Recent comments

  • Pete
    January 20, 2014 - 06:56

    Is the Cynthia King involved in lobbying for deep-water wells the same Cynthia King who, while an MLA, campaigned tirelessly against the use of lawn care chemicals and pesticides because of the danger they posed to PEI's fragile water table?

  • Patrick
    January 20, 2014 - 06:38

    Its not like every potato field on the island will have irrigation. It is very expensive. Yes there will be new wells dug, but its not like they will be everywhere.

  • Ask questions
    January 19, 2014 - 13:09

    The Potato Board doesn't need to spend hard earned farmer levy dollars on lobbyists to talk to MLAs in our province. It's ridiculous. As a farmer, I don't want to incur the costs of irrigating my crops. However, as soon as the moratorium ends, the processor will make farmers do it. And if it's like previous experience, the farmer will not get paid for this. The only "reward" is not losing your contract. I don't think Guignon is correct re the water resources. Why don't you ask Environment officials as they are the ones who did the monitoring and studies on our water resources and recharge rates? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered on this, and the Potato Board doing the processors bidding is a bad, bad situation.

  • DO NOT
    January 19, 2014 - 08:21

    We are a Sand Bar..How many other areas can be compared, land wise. Please don't dig these wells.

  • Must already have deep wells
    January 19, 2014 - 06:34

    These farmers are spraying thousands of gallons of water per day. Look at the spray tanks and water trucks feeding them. These sprayers are not recharged from the garden hose, you have to have a deep well to recharge and produce sprayer water. Soil management has never been as issue for fertilizer driven crops.

  • don
    January 19, 2014 - 04:14

    i agree deep wells are bad for islanders but we all know money talks with this government so deep well will be done and to hell with our drinking water profits comes 1st.

  • Grateful
    January 18, 2014 - 21:46

    Well said, Professor Guignion. Thank you.

  • Observer
    January 18, 2014 - 20:11

    Please listen to this man. Without water there is no future . We are already on the verge of real problems here. There is nothing worth trading for clean water.

  • Madelaine Venart-Mcgarry
    January 18, 2014 - 19:49

    It is time we look long and hard and develop policy to protect the resources fundamental to sustain future generations of all organisms including ourselves. Times are changing that is for sure and we take so much forgranted. and PEI's soils and water tables and systems are unique...this needs to be looked long and hard.

  • candrayo
    January 18, 2014 - 18:44

    Any Scientist, Doctor, or any other such professional should have no affiliation with Government. It is an ethical violation to all of us that it is so. Love to see not all are afraid to stand up and speak the truth!

  • Lloyd Kerry
    January 18, 2014 - 18:26

    Well said. Pun intended.

    January 18, 2014 - 17:09

    It's good to see that someone in the science community is standing up to these corporate farmers, and trust me , they are corporate farms that want to get at this water, not the family farms. They have the money to hire lobbyist who have connections to the government to press for changes. Thank you for standing up for us Professor Guignion.

  • Bonnie
    January 18, 2014 - 16:59

    Bravo, Professor Guignon, for being the wise counsel on this matter, which is of the greatest importance for the protection of P.E.I.'s precious water supply. Our Environment Minister needs to be wise too, and forgo his biases for the industrial potato industry.