© Brian McInnis - The Guardian
A farmer irrigates his field in western Queens County in this Guardian file photo from the summer of 2013.
Deep-water wells issue returns firmly to Environment Minister Janice Sherry
It is no surprise the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture voted to endorse a request to end the 10-year moratorium on deep-water wells for potato irrigation. The P.E.I. Potato Board proposal was attacked earlier by the National Farmers Union which called it a threat to the environment. The board was looking for support from the larger federation which met Friday.
The provincial watershed manager told a noon luncheon there was ample water supply on P.E.I., adequate recharge rates and strong water levels in all regions. It seems government believes it already has the necessary science and is readying to say yes — with conditions.
The federation said before the meeting there was much misinformation on the issue. With an opportunity to clarify matters, it instead went behind closed doors for discussion and voting, an unprecedented move by the federation which has always debated resolutions in an open forum.
We are told the vote in support was unanimous so why did the federation feel it was necessary to go in camera if there was unanimity? If the federation felt so supportive as to vote unanimously in favour, why hide its arguments?
A recent opinion piece in The Guardian from P.E.I. biologists Daryl Guignion and Ian MacQuarrie was a compelling challenge to the proposal. They raised questions about problems created by past potato farming practices and asked what guarantees are there that such behaviour won’t be repeated. The two award-winning biologists then laid out a four-point plan for government to follow before making a decision on the industry's request.
Those points would require government to provide a detailed analysis of water-extraction policies and compare the economic impact of the industry in relation to costs to taxpayers for cleanup costs, subsidies and rebates. It was a powerful letter.
There is an old Island saying, ‘So goes the potato industry, so goes P.E.I.’ Government must carefully weigh the request from an industry which is responsible for creating an estimated $1 billion per year for the provincial economy. The province has done what it can to assist a lobster fishery crippled by low prices and now the other major primary player is seeking some insurance help for a crop often impacted by dry stretches of weather during the key growing months of July and August.
Government, and the federation, has an ‘out’ because the resolution Friday didn’t provide carte blanche approval. It requires the moratorium removal be based on quality science and a significant water management program to monitor the resource.
The federation gave what support it could to the potato industry. Now the Department of Environment and Minister Janice Sherry must provide incontrovertible science to support lifting the moratorium or say no.
Ms. Sherry was hoping to have the potato industry present its arguments and sway public opinion to its side, to make things easier for government. That failed. Now the minister must step forward to assume charge of this file and make the tough decision.
This is not an agricultural issue, but an environmental one. Ms. Sherry must ensure our water supply — present and future — is protected. She would be wise to look at the proposals set out by Mr. Guignion and Mr. MacQuarrie. This would not allow for a decision in time to impact this crop year but could be in place for future seasons.
The issue must come out from behind closed doors and be discussed in an open, transparent manner. Irrefutable science is now the sine qua non to justify deep-water wells for irrigation of potatoes on P.E.I.