© Heather Taweel
Environment Minister Janice Sherry, centre, spoke to a committee of MLAs on the issue of deep-well irrigation Thursday. Joining her were the provincial director of environment Jim Young, left, and Bruce Raymond, right, manager of watershed planning for the province.
Environment Minister Janice Sherry says government has made no decisions on deep-well irrigation and the moratorium will not be lifted unless it’s proven it will not diminish the quantity or quality of P.E.I.’s groundwater.
Sherry was in the hot seat Tuesday at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry.
She said the question of whether to lift the current moratorium on deep-water wells for irrigation has become a leading issue and that she has received a lot of impassioned feedback from Islanders.
She said she welcomes a “lively debate.”
“As a government, we are listening to what Islanders have to say on this issue. We are listening to what the agricultural industry is telling us,” she said.
“You will hear that we have more than enough water to meet our needs. However, that supply must be carefully monitored and managed, That is the issue when it comes to issuing permits for high-capacity wells.”
The issue has become a topic of heated debate, especially after industry giant Cavendish Farms and the P.E.I. Potato Board mounted a full-scale lobby effort several weeks ago. They are pushing for access to deep-water wells to supply potato fields with water for supplemental irrigation.
But environmental groups are raising serious concern over the impacts large-scale agricultural irrigation could have on P.E.I.’s groundwater levels. They also worry about potential nitrate contamination.
The committee meeting Thursday saw a packed crowd of concerned Islanders in attendance — a rare occurrence for the normally empty public gallery of the committee chamber.
A technical briefing was presented about how P.E.I.’s groundwater is managed and scientific data about recharge rates, compiled by the Environment Department.
Bruce Raymond, manager of watershed and subdivision planning for the province, said provincial data shows the rate at which P.E.I.’s groundwater is replenished every year is quite high.
This recharge rate is equal to 154 Olympic-sized swimming pools for every square inch of the Island, he told the committee.
Raymond also said only seven per cent of water available for extraction within environmental regulations is being used.
But when the time for questions came, Opposition MLAs were mainly interested in the politics of the issue.
Opposition Leader Steven Myers asked Sherry who first suggested the moratorium be lifted.
She said the request came from the potato board.
“What’s been told to me by many, many people, too many to think it’s not true, is that government went to the potato board and said, ‘Hey you should ask for this because we’ll probably give it to you’,” Myers said.
“Absolutely not,” Sherry replied.
Agriculture Critic Colin LaVie questioned Sherry on the involvement of the premier’s former chief of staff, Chris LeClair, and former Liberal MLA Cynthia King. The two were hired to help the potato board lobby in favour of deep-water wells.
He asked whether the Environment Department paid them.
Sherry firmly denied this, saying Cavendish Farms hired LeClair and King to educate people about high-capacity wells.
“I don’t have a role to play in that, that’s totally a private business hiring someone to provide a service for them. That’s got nothing to do with government,” Sherry said.
“When you talk about educate, is this process already done?” LaVie asked.
Sherry stressed that nothing has gone before cabinet on this issue and that all opinions and data are continuing to be assessed.
“We need informed discussions. We need facts. We need science. We need to build a consensus around this issue and I can assure the members of this committee that the views of all Islanders will be taken into account before a decision is made.”