Will common sense trump misleading scientific claims on deep-water wells?

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Guest Opinion

Editor: Allen Hicken recently informed us in a guest opinion to The Guardian that Environment Minister Janice Sherry’s first words to him as Chair of the Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) were: “Protecting our groundwater is not debatable.” Sounds like a “zero tolerance” policy against damaging the environment; however, and sadly, provincial agricultural policy has for decades supported an industrial model of agriculture that relies on massive applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides which have already seriously damaged the quality of our groundwater, estuaries, food, and Island environment.

Mr. Hicken also questions why the government has not made public certain groundwater research studies. In particular, he cites high-capacity well research conducted in P.E.I. by Dr. Yefang Jiang. I couldn’t locate that study, but found another study co-authored by Dr. Jiang titled “Modeling effects of nitrate from non-point sources on groundwater quality in an agricultural watershed in Prince Edward Island, Canada” which was enlightening.

The abstract for that article states: “Intensification of potato farming has contaminated groundwater with nitrate in many cases in Prince Edward Island, Canada, which raises concerns for drinking water quality and associated ecosystem protection . . . while it would take several years to reduce the nitrate-N in the shallow portion of the aquifer, it would take several decades or even longer to restore water quality in the deeper portions of the aquifer.

“Elevated nitrate-N concentrations in base flow are positively correlated with potato cropping intensity and significant reductions in nitrate-N loading are required if the nitrate level of surface water is to recover to the standard in the Canadian Water Quality Guidelines.”

Numerous scientific studies I easily found clearly show that irrigation significantly increases chemical leaching and groundwater contamination. Why? Because leaching has to do with how much fertilizer and other chemicals are moved below the root systems of crops, and irrigation increases the amount of chemicals moved below the root system. If these chemicals aren’t taken up by the plants they inevitably move through the soil into the ground water.

A 1991 Nitrogen Action Plan developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states: “Fertilizer use in irrigated agriculture has been identified as the chief source of nitrate contamination of ground water in the agricultural valleys of California, central Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and in the sand plain region of central Wisconsin (Keeney, 1986, p. 280).

Another study (Pucket et al., 1999) concluded that the groundwater system in west-central Minnesota was receiving “ . . . three times as much nitrogen as would be expected under background conditions” as a result of irrigation. Why? Again, because “Irrigation accelerates the movement of nitrates, other soluble constituents and percolating water to the groundwater (Mossbarger and Yost, 1989).”

The real question we should be asking our government is why is it not taking immediate action to reduce the extensive chemical pollution of our ground water and environment which is already happening from intensive agriculture? We urgently need policies to move our food production system away from growing potatoes for McCain and Irving french fries, and growing an increasing number of genetically-modified soybeans and corn for export.

Shouldn’t a more important aim for our government be to help farmers reduce chemical applications to undo some of the damage being done from excessive chemical application and (as Dr. Jiang reminds us) recover water quality in P.E.I. to the standard in the Canadian Water Quality Guidelines? Let’s hope that the minister’s statement “Protecting our groundwater is not debatable” was indeed sincere and that the government will ensure that good science and common sense will trump misleading scientific claims that more irrigation will not harm ground water. It will.

Kevin J. Arsenault, Ph.D.,

Fort Augustus

Organizations: Environmental Advisory Committee, Canadian Water Quality Guidelines, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Geographic location: California, Prince Edward Island, Canada Nebraska Colorado Wisconsin West-central Minnesota Fort Augustus

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