Prince Edward Island potato growers want deep well permits

Tapping into P.E.I.'s deep water aquifer is controversial practice

Steve Sharratt
Published on January 15, 2014

A farmer irrigates his field in western Queens County in this Guardian file photo.

©Guardian photo by Brian McInnis

Prince Edward Island potato growers are hoping the new year will bring them a gushing geyser of permits to begin irrigating fields this year from deep water wells.

They say science supports it and the crops need it and without it productivity will not only decline, but lead to the depletion of P.E.I.’s $1 billion dollar potato industry.

“About 10 years ago, a one-year moratorium was put in place on deep water wells to allow the Department of Environment time to study it,” says Gary Linkletter, chairman of the P.E.I. Potato Board.

“This study revealed a very high recharge rate and that all water use on the Island consumes only seven per cent of the available recharge water.”

But the idea of sucking tonnes of water out of P.E.I.’s deep water aquifer — the groundwater resource for all Islanders — has sprouted a litany of protest from citizen’s groups, political parties and environmentalists.

“Allowing the potato industry to irrigate fields with groundwater will worsen nitrate and pesticide contamination of our highly vulnerable drinking water aquifers,’’ says Earth Action spokeswoman Sharon Labchuk. “It should not be allowed.”

Potato officials insist they need to squeeze more spuds out of each acre to remain competitive and irrigation, or a steady supply of water, is a key to success.

Irrigation permits have been around before but never drew the amount of protest as today because few farmers could afford the equipment, lack of rain wasn’t an issue, potatoes didn’t need to be a uniform size and the discovery of nitrates in drinking water had yet to fully emerge.

Western P.E.I. growers enjoyed enough precipitation during the 2013 growing season. But eastern farmers were somewhat slaked while central growers around Summerside didn’t get enough and yields were down as much as 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, North American competitors — where irrigation is a common tool — are sometimes harvesting twice the amount of spuds from one acre. A Wisconsin farmer harvests two to every one spud gleaned by an Island grower.

“Some growers in North America have improved their productivity to 400 cwt. (hundredweight) an acre,’’ says Souris area farmer Kevin MacIsaac, chair of the United Potato Growers of Canada. “We’re not even close to that in Canada (240 cwt. in P.E.I.) because we don’t have the longer growing season or access to irrigation.”

But Labchuk says government data already shows virtually all drinking water is contaminated with nitrates and the number of contaminated wells will only grow.

“Given that potato growers are unable to prevent drinking water contamination now, they should not be given tools to worsen the problem,’’ she says.

As far back as 1995, a provincial Department of Environment report contends: “Good quality groundwater can be managed and utilized as a renewable natural resource (as long) as the rate of groundwater extraction permitted does not exceed 50 per cent of the annual recharge rate”.

The Council of Canadians wants a legislated ban on deep well irrigation and NDP Leader Mike Redmond is also cautioning the cancelling of the moratorium.

“The Liberal government has gone rogue on the environment and it’s time to hit the brakes on deep water wells,’’ he says.

Council of Canadians chairman Leo Broderick says there is a huge danger in allowing deep well irrigation in the province.

“Our ground water is not an infinite resource and we will suffer from long-term ground water depletion.”

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister George Webster is carefully stickhandling his way through an issue many consider a done deal. When he addressed the recent P.E.I. Potato Board annual meeting he focused on pest problems and research and while he sat on the bench about deep water wells — he did offer some key words.

“A strong, sustainable potato industry requires many partners and we must ensure P.E.I. continues to rank among the best in the world,” he told growers recently at the Delta Prince Edward. “Your industry is extremely important to the provincial economy and to rural communities, but as in any industry there are challenges.”

Both MacIsaac and Linkletter hope the government will announce approval for permits before the spring planting season and are blunt about a P.E.I. potato industry without irrigation.

“We’re not competing anymore….elsewhere else the yield has gone up and if we don’t get our yields up we will be economically out of the picture.”

Ten years ago, potato production hovered around 110,000 acres. Today it’s trimmed down to 85,000 acres. Potato officials say they don’t want to go back to a larger land mass just to harvest more potatoes.

Solicitation for deep well irrigation support is expected to be presented to the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture at its Jan. 31 annual meeting.