Research finds most nitrates in Northumberland Strait come from P.E.I.

Maureen Coulter
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Scientists, grad students from three Maritime provinces looking into how nutrients, sediments affect waterways

A research team has discovered that Prince Edward Island is exporting more than just potatoes.

It turns out that 95 per cent of the nitrates that are emptying into the Northumberland Strait are coming from this province. And of these, 91 per cent are coming from the Island's agriculture industry.

The research is the result of the work of a group of scientists and a host of grad students who have been studying how human activities on land are affecting waterways in the region, including the Northumberland Strait.

The scientists received $600,000 after putting out a call for proposals to the Northumberland Strait-Environmental Monitoring Partnership under the Canadian Water Network.

"Nobody had ever gone out and said what province is all the nutrients coming from and looked at all three provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.) together and what goes into the Northumberland (Strait) on a regional basis," said Mike R. van den Heuvel, director of the Canadian Rivers Institute located at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The research took place over a four-year period. They found high levels of nitrates coming from P.E.I. farms. Van den Heuvel said 57 per cent of the nitrates from the agriculture industry is coming from potato production.

When asked about the study’s findings, P.E.I. Potato Board general manager Greg Donald said farmers are always looking for ways to improve the industry and the environment.

"Is there an issue with nitrates? Absolutely. Is it getting better? Absolutely."

Donald refers to a graph on the Department of Communities, Land and Environment website on nitrate concentrations in 10 Island streams. The graph shows that since 2010, the nitrate levels in most of the streams are on the decline.

"There is a lot of efforts around looking at different cover crops and also fall seeded cover crops, and those are all geared towards soil management, erosion control and also managements of nitrates."

Van den Heuvel says the research also shows the effects of nutrients and sediments in estuaries. An estuary is an enclosed body of water with a mix of fresh and salt water.

There are hundreds of estuaries on P.E.I., and every year nitrates cause more than 20 to become anoxic, meaning depleted of oxygen.

This affects everything from mussels, oysters and eels.

Van den Heuvel said the solution is to be more serious about reaching nutrient goals.

"There are a number of things we can do," said van den Heuvel, "things like reducing agriculture area, better crops and better nutrient management."

Donald said potato farmers are working to do just that, noting the board is one of the partners under the 4R Nutrient Stewardship system.

"We invest and continue to invest in good science-based information, particularly when it comes to the environment,” Donald said.

The 4R system applies the right source, right place, right rate and right time to ensure best practices so fertilizers don't find their way into the groundwater on P.E.I.

"We are very much about improving things and understanding things better, getting the facts and then what can we do to improve it,” said Donald.

Besides examining nitrates, the scientists looked at sediment in estuaries.

"With nitrogen, we knew already to some extent how much was coming off and that there was a nitrogen issue....In terms of sediment, we had nothing."

Sediment happens when contaminants, including road construction debris, go into the waterways.

"Sediment is something we all know happens, everybody knows the rivers turn red, so it is an issue."

The researchers have established a monitoring plan so that watershed groups, as well as provincial and federal governments, have a foundation to better understand the environmental quality.

Solutions to some of these human activities include planting more trees, not farming on slopped land and having more diversification of agriculture.

Their work for this project concludes March 31.

maureen.coulter@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/MaureenElizaC

Organizations: Northumberland Strait-Environmental Monitoring Partnership, Canadian Water Network, Canadian Rivers Institute University of Prince Edward Island P.E.I. Potato Board Department of Communities

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Maritime, New Brunswick Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • Islander
    March 07, 2016 - 16:32

    And what about the huge amounts of lime that the mussel growers pour into the water every year. If I went to a body of water and started dumping lime into it, I'd be charged ! What a farce!

  • shut down the fertilizer plants
    March 06, 2016 - 13:56

    I'm glad that scientists have now confirmed with empirical evidence what many of us have suspected for years. Now what to do about it? PEI owes it to neighbouring provinces in the Gulf of St Lawrence to SHUT DOWN the fertilizer industry. These massive ships arrive every spring and fall with hundreds of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, urea, phosphorus and potash. This gets spread on our landscape. It gets washed by rainfall and snow melt into our soil and down into our ground water but a good portion of it washes off into our streams, which lead into estuaries, which lead into our coastal waters. Until PEI can guarantee that not one particle of these substances will enter FEDERAL waters, then the fertilizer industry should be shut down. The agriculture industry and landscaping industry would adapt and find new sources (e.g. manure).

  • concerned
    March 05, 2016 - 17:06

    I hope Islanders will finally make their feelings heard with this news. Until our provincial government comes in from the sidelines, our environment and the health of islanders will continue on a downward spiral. If MacLauchlan wants to make a name for our island produce, he had better make sure we clean up our act. News like this is only going to continue to come out. People are so sick and tired of propaganda and were really hoping for change with this government. Instead we continue to get same ole, same ole.

  • UPWESTER
    March 05, 2016 - 16:13

    Cavendish Farms have ruined this Island. Sure they created a lot of jobs, but at what cost? The farmers have to produce more potatoes than they can sell, just so they can keep an Irving contract. Most, if not all of the nitrates come from Cavendish fertilizers, as well as all the pesticides that are being sprayed. What has Cavendish done to alleviate all the fish kills and nitrates that turn our rivers anoxic, damaging all aquatic animals, especially the shell fish? They take all their profits and leave the mess to us and when confronted and asked to help, they threaten to leave. They even threaten to leave if we don't finance any expansion at little on no interest. They are not good corporate citizens, stashing all their profits in the Bahamas and paying little or no taxes here. But the Liberals love them, especially MacLauchlan.

  • Jim
    March 05, 2016 - 15:26

    Remember as a child drinking without worry right from fresh water springs. Now we have to resort to bottled water to have water that is safe to drink. And like it or not we have the potato to thank for that.

  • rigpei
    March 05, 2016 - 15:11

    Is there an issue with nitrates? Absolutely. Is it getting better? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!!!!!

  • Linda MacKay
    March 05, 2016 - 14:41

    Wow, We know that nitrates cause cancer, We know the pesticides used for potatoes get into the river as fish die after a rain run off. I just have to drive over the Hardy Mill Road and see the sickening red water of the potato fields run off , through a culvert into the Hardy Mill Pond which has been set up for fishing Etc., for well over 25 years, It has been completely drained, bottom cleaned and refilled only to still watch the water run into it again , Really, how crazy is that. If they could be sure to have lots and lots of grassed area where it is low, Trees planted next to pond and culvert over 50 feet area, not 15 feet , so that the water has no chance. I notice the potato rows heading down into the lower land making it be sure to run in the gullies heading for the fishing pond. . Why can't the farmers make the rows go side ways, water would have to go over the potato hills then. This can be stopped with good farming practices. And the farmers should remember or learn a lesson from the old method of farming, keep the hedgerows up and plant more, and check the organic methods that look after the land as their primary source of income which has a healthy of soil, minerals in the soil and in the food via healthy manure from healthy feed animals. No brainer to me. Too many people with cancer on this beautiful Island of ours. We can even go GMO free for sure as no wind can carry it from the mainland We definitely need look again at the pesticide use. I know how hard it is to get rid of the Colorado beetle, but get the soil healthy again so the right bugs can do their job before it is way too late.

  • Linda MacKay
    March 05, 2016 - 14:40

    Wow, We know that nitrates cause cancer, We know the pesticides used for potatoes get into the river as fish die after a rain run off. I just have to drive over the Hardy Mill Road and see the sickening red water of the potato fields run off , through a culvert into the Hardy Mill Pond which has been set up for fishing Etc., for well over 25 years, It has been completely drained, bottom cleaned and refilled only to still watch the water run into it again , Really, how crazy is that. If they could be sure to have lots and lots of grassed area where it is low, Trees planted next to pond and culvert over 50 feet area, not 15 feet , so that the water has no chance. I notice the potato rows heading down into the lower land making it be sure to run in the gullies heading for the fishing pond. . Why can't the farmers make the rows go side ways, water would have to go over the potato hills then. This can be stopped with good farming practices. And the farmers should remember or learn a lesson from the old method of farming, keep the hedgerows up and plant more, and check the organic methods that look after the land as their primary source of income which has a healthy of soil, minerals in the soil and in the food via healthy manure from healthy feed animals. No brainer to me. Too many people with cancer on this beautiful Island of ours. We can even go GMO free for sure as no wind can carry it from the mainland We definitely need look again at the pesticide use. I know how hard it is to get rid of the Colorado beetle, but get the soil healthy again so the right bugs can do their job before it is way too late.

  • fred
    March 05, 2016 - 13:37

    Take the blindfold off Mr. Macdonald. A lot of people can;t even drink their own water. If you think farmers are practicing good farming methods; take a drive out dunk river road . Everything slopes into the river or into the ditch and then into the river . What a mess . of that river . There is hardly a trout or a clam left in east prince .Then take a drive along where the east prince mountie barracks is ; on a windy day .They plow all the fields in the fall and all the top soil blows off all the fields all winter .This is just two small examples . Farmers got away with this because no mater what level of gov . It always seem to be a big farmer that is the minister of agriculture and do what ever they want. Something like leaving the monkey in charge of the zoo .Things have to change to this gentle little poison island. We can;t even get the refugees to come here.

  • Garth Staples
    March 05, 2016 - 13:07

    Why the surprise? And Island environmentalists thought oil was the problem, oil from Alberta! Look no closer than your doorstep.

    • intobed
      March 05, 2016 - 21:27

      The addiction to all things oil is a world wide problem, Garth. This article is about the Island's potato farmers addiction to chemical fertilizers. Quite a difference.

  • ronnie sherren
    March 05, 2016 - 12:26

    Excellent article. With the collaboration of industry, government & the scientific community, it should be apparent a Concrete Plan is required to demonstrate how to deal-up this nitrate & sediment issue. Over the last 30 years, I have witness a drastic sediment buildup in a certain estuary where there is not only no Channel but also the loss of marine & wildlife.

  • kevin taylor
    March 05, 2016 - 11:20

    We should be dredging our rivers for mud the way they did years ago, and reusing that fertilizer. There were no fish kills back than when they dug Mussel mud, why would there be now.

    • The Urban Oysterman
      March 05, 2016 - 12:15

      Dredging mud... brilliant idea! The the farmer might see a potato yeilds the size of a grey squirrel's testicle and finally the brochures for new pickups would blow off the kitchen table and that farm will set to methods that enhance the mud fertilizer rather than DuPont or Monsanto our lands(song birds) and waters(fish kills) to death. We have a great opportunity for creative constructive and environmental farming change.

  • UPWESTER
    March 05, 2016 - 10:20

    I suppose potato farmers will not believe what every one else seems to inherently know. The damage these farmers are doing to our water system is abhorent. All governments have turned a blind eye to them and let them go on polluting the land and waterways not only with nutrients, but with deadly poisons. When is this province going to wake up and do something? The fish kills in the river systems of PEI is our canary in the mine shaft. Now they have absolute proof what is happening, maybe the other provinces will do something about it. Our government certainly wont do anything on their own. Last week farmers were complaining about a glut on the market and the inability to sell their potatoes, maybe now they will stop this raping of our land.

  • Adolphus
    March 05, 2016 - 08:47

    Finally! Someone has said it. A ray of hope for our waterways and groundwater in P.E.I. We may not have to all move to the mainland after all.

  • Ken Perry
    March 05, 2016 - 08:47

    What I get a kick out of is they say "Solutions to some of these human activities include planting more trees, not farming on slopped land and having more diversification of agriculture", As if it is just natural normal human activity that is causing it and the solutions they give doesn't include the option of stopping or even reducing the use of nitrates or looking at decreasing pesticide use , completely unbelievable that we now know 100% that nitrates cause cancer with all the people we have lost and that are dying a painful death from cancer on this island all the Men, Women and Children and then we see this white washed bull crap article out there blatantly disregarding the real issue, just goes to show that the money they make from this horrid practice is way more important then the people they poison to make it. Very sad state of affairs and shame on the people responsible for white washing this on going disgraceful poisoning of the Island people.

  • The Urban Oysterman
    March 05, 2016 - 07:12

    One small Island(146,000) GIVING so much to the rest of the world'Nitrates are one big headache for feeding things in Oyster waters that are not good for the Oysters Environment. I wonder what effect nitrates have on warm water vibrio?

  • Jim
    March 05, 2016 - 05:42

    Don`t think this report would surprise anyone. A lot of the oldtimers can probably tell about fishing streams on the Island that there is hardly a trace of ever being there ,because of the farming methods carried out.