Ag federation faces decision on deep wells

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Meeting this week should signal support for potato board’s contentious request

This week’s annual meeting of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture will attract more interest than usual because of the contentious issue of deep-water wells for potato irrigation. The federation has wells placed prominently on the agenda with a presentation outlining the P.E.I. Department of Environment’s perspective on water quantity and seasonal demands, while outlining the government’s water extraction policy for groundwater and surface water.

The federation will also hear an update on the Georgetown Conference and the impact of the harmonized sales tax. The federation strongly supported the HST and said tax rebates on the cost of doing business would position Island farmers on an equal footing with the rest of the region. But the key topic Friday in Charlottetown will be wells.

Deep-water wells have drawn a flood of comment because it affects every Islander who has legitimate concerns over a secure supply of drinking water and contamination of the water table with nitrates and pesticides. It’s a hot-button topic that leaves government with a very difficult decision. The total economic wealth associated with close to 90,000 acres of spuds is in excess of $1 billion and that money finds its way into every Island home and business.

Environment Minister Janice Sherry has received an advisory board recommendation on deep wells but is reluctant to make that public, at least at this time. She had suggested to the P.E.I. Potato Board that since it’s their idea to lift the moratorium, it should present its arguments in a public forum to allay the concerns of Islanders.

The board issued its argument Saturday in the form of a rational, well-crafted opinion piece to The Guardian. Its key argument was science supports a reasonable, supplemental irrigation program because all demands of water in the province today “use less than two per cent of the annual groundwater recharge.” The board isn’t seeking unfettered approval and notes that applications would be judged by the department while considering local water sources and supply. Already, there is strong reaction to chairman Gary Linkletter’s opinion piece, all of it negative.

The National Farmers Union has made its position known, and as expected, is vehemently against the idea. The NFU is left of centre on most environmental issues and had vigorously opposed changes to the limits on land ownership last year. The federation usually leans right of centre, and had supported the increased acreage limits. The federation is usually more concerned with the bottom line for farmers, with the belief that a farmer losing money is a farmer leaving agriculture. But it does endorse the mantra of farmers being economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible.

The federation has yet to take a public stance on the well issue. And government is surely waiting for the farm group to signal its support or opposition before going any further. It’s likely there will be public hearings but a decision must be made soon to have any impact on this growing season. Potato farmers would have to dig wells, buy expensive irrigation equipment and be ready for any dry weather to assist their valuable crop. It would take months to take advantage of any change to the moratorium.

It would be a surprise if the federation doesn’t support the potato board Friday and pass a resolution recommending the lifting of the moratorium, at least in some regulated form. A release from the board on the annual meeting already signals that position. It states there has been a lot of recent “controversy and misinformation” being circulated surrounding deep-water wells and water quality on P.E.I.  The key word here is misinformation.

Organizations: P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, PEI Department, P.E.I. Potato Board Islanders.The board

Geographic location: Iceland, Georgetown, Charlottetown Farmers Union

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  • Steve Murnghan
    February 07, 2014 - 11:46

    If you are concerned about the potential impact of these deep water wells on PEI CALL YOUR MLA leaving a comment on the guardian may "feel" good but it's your voice that holds the power...not an anonymous comment

  • intobed
    January 28, 2014 - 22:28

    Why did The Guardian open this column up for comments, if you will not post them?