By Margie Loo (a readers view)
(An open letter to my MLA and the minister of environment)
I have been watching the discussion about lifting of the moratorium on deep-water irrigation wells with concern. I have listened as Gary Linkletter, chairman of the Potato Board, assures us there is ample water for everyone. I have also heard Daryl Guignion, a former biologist at UPEI, express great concern about taking more water from our aquifers.
Mr. Linkletter assures us the province has done an evaluation of our groundwater and that we only use an average of two per cent of the annual recharge. I wonder what conditions that two per cent is based on. Was it a year when the streams were drying up, and the City of Charlottetown was asking residents to limit water use? Obviously the years when irrigation is needed are the same years that the aquifers are unusually low.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are other things that make P.E.I.’s environment unique. We have very sandy soil.
We all know what happens when it rains on exposed soils; our waterways turn red. What we don’t see is the agricultural chemicals and fertilizers leaching down into the groundwater. We assume our deep-water aquifers have not yet been affected too much by nitrates but as this pristine deep water gets pumped out the more contaminated shallow groundwater will move down to refill them.
The spectre of nitrate contamination spreading rapidly throughout our water supply should be a great concern for all of us.
We don’t know to what degree the shallow aquifers and the deep aquifers are connected to each other. If they were connected then we would expect that groundwater would be drawn down to recharge the deep aquifers during irrigation impacting household wells in the area. These domestic wells are in the shallow aquifers and with a dropping water table during dry summers many more homeowners will be forced to drill deeper wells. This is not a new problem as anyone digging wells can tell you. Who will be responsible for the cost of these new wells?
P.E.I. consists of fractured sandstone bedrock which creates unique challenges. This is significant because our underground aquifers do not flow in predictable ways. No one knows how drilling more deep wells will affect water moving though the bedrock.
There has not been a comprehensive study done of the hydrogeology of Prince Edward Island. Researchers from the Universities of Calgary and Guelph have only recently begun the first such study on P.E.I.
As a farmer myself I understand the challenge potato farmers face, however I also know there are other ways of solving this problem. For example it is well known that soil that has ample organic matter can withstand long stretches of dry weather. Adding irrigation systems to land in potato production is going to increase the pressure to plant cash crops more often leading to greater depletion of organic matter, not to mention the eventual salinization of soil. What is being proposed is really large-scale hydroponic production whereby the health of soils no longer matters at all.
Yes, potato production moves a lot of money though the Island economy. This isn’t the whole picture. The cost to other sectors of the Island community must also be considered.
Farther, remember that deep-water irrigation wells do not ensure success for potato growers or take the uncertainty out of potato production. Potato production depends market demand, and this is something that P.E.I. producers can’t control.
We do know however that allowing more deep wells certainly will put more pressure on P.E.I.’s environment.
Margie Loo of Elderflower Organic Farm, Belfast RR 3, is a pioneer in organic farming practices on P.E.I.