Why should we support request where resource put further at risk?

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Flyfishing on West River

P.E.I. needs water policy which eliminates lobby groups to override best interest of Islanders

By Mike Durant (Guest Opinion)

The P.E.I. Potato Board and Cavendish Farms are asking that the moratorium on high-capacity groundwater extractions be lifted. Concerned citizens, scientists and the National Farmers Union have presented their own arguments against such action. We now learn that ex-politicians and ex-civil servants have been hired to lobby every MLA on the potato industry’s behalf, moving the debate away from objective science and into the political realm.

The Central Queens Wildlife Federation feels that all Islanders should understand the facts of this important debate. We have sent this fact sheet to every MLA on future Islanders’ behalf.

Did you know? The new Water Extraction Permitting Policy allows 100 metres of headwater streams to dry up entirely during the low-flow time of the year when groundwater makes up all or most of stream flow. As the flows are reduced, the pathway for water shrinks in from the banks of the river, further eliminating the downstream edge habitat that is so critical for young fishes and other aquatic life. Young fish forced into mid-stream are eaten by larger fish, reducing and potentially eliminating future generations of the population. Where will the fish come from to sustain these populations?

Did you know? There is a lag time for recovery of groundwater loss from extraction. It may be many weeks before the affected stream will return to normal levels. If this is very late in the summer, the water level may not recover until spring. Island rivers are already being impacted by low water levels and low rates of recharge in recent years, evident from Environment Canada monitoring. Will recharge rates return to the historical rates upon which the provincial extraction permitting policy appears to be based? How much will climate change affect recharge in future years?

Did you know? This issue is not just about the quantity of groundwater available to people and nature, it is also about the quality of that water. When wells pump water up to the surface for our use, it creates pressure underground that pulls water toward the well from the surrounding soil and rock.

On the Island, that means water from closer to the surface will be pulled down to the depth of deep-water wells. Water closer to the surface has higher concentrations of nitrate —nitrogen. It also contains other fertilizer components like phosphorus and water-soluble forms of pesticides. In the process of extracting water from greater depths, we will further contaminate our deepwater aquifer. What consequences will this have to the water discharging to our estuaries, and the frequency of anoxic events ?

Did you know? The guideline for acceptable levels of nitrate-nitrogen in drinking water is a concentration of 10 mg/L, for protection of aquatic life it is 2.9 mg/L. Nitrate concentrations indicating ‘pristine’ water conditions on the Island are in the range of 0.5 -1.0 mg/L. Average nitrate values for the Wilmot, Dunk and Mill Rivers in 2008/2009 exceeded 7.1, 4.5 and 3.0 mg/L, high enough to produce anoxic events. When drinking water values climb, the only recourse for the well owner to reduce the nitrate concentration is to either install a reverse osmosis filtration system ($1,500) or dig a deeper well ($3,000). There are roughly 30,000 approved cottage lots on the Island. In some locations, they may be faced with two choices: dig a shallow well with high nitrate-nitrogen concentrations or dig a deeper well with saltwater intrusion. If someone’s well goes dry or is contaminated, will the potato industry be compensating them? How many Islanders can afford to front these costs themselves?

Did you know? While the industry lobby is arguing that supplemental irrigation will improve potato yields and make Island growers and processors more competitive, the main advantages enjoyed by this industry in other regions are superior quality soils and longer growing seasons. Irrigation will not affect either of these factors. Soil quality monitoring by the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Forestry has shown that the benchmark three-year crop rotation does not prevent soil organic matter from decreasing year after year.  A minimum of a four-year crop rotation with two years in forage is required to maintain organic matter in the soil. Why is organic matter important? Because it holds water! You can’t retain water at the soil surface for plant uptake if you’re growing your crop in sand. The potato industry has squandered their topsoil and soil organic matter for decades by operating in a manner that is not sustainable. Supplemental irrigation is not a cure for these harmful practices. If we continue in this fashion, the data shows that our soils will become inert and our groundwater unsuitable for animal or human consumption. How many more years will it really give the industry? Who will benefit in the long run from this initiative — potato producers or just the processors?

Yes, the potato industry on the Island has challenges and yes, they need to take a hard look at the long-term sustainability of their practices. But why should the public be asked to support an initiative where the longevity of the benefits to the industry are questionable and where a public resource is further put at risk?

The Island is in desperate need of strong policy on land and resource use. While the current government works on a land use policy, there is no indication that this will sufficiently protect our ground and surface waters from over-exploitation. We need a provincial water policy, similar to other provinces, which eliminates the potential for strong lobby groups with deep pockets to override what is in the best interest of Islanders.

Mike Durant is a board member of the Central Queens Wildlife Federation and West River Watershed Project.

Organizations: P.E.I. Potato Board, Central Queens Wildlife Federation, Environment Canada P.E.I. Department of Agriculture

Geographic location: Iceland, Farmers Union, West River

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