Deep-water wells continue to raise concerns

Teresa Wright
Published on June 26, 2014

Cathy Ryan, from the University of Calgary, tells MLAs she believes P.E.I. has a plentiful amount of groundwater. The standing commitee on environment continued to probe the issue of deep-water wells at a hearing in Charlottetown Wednesay.

More organizations and citizens are urging the P.E.I. government to exercise caution as it continues to consider Cavendish Farms’ proposal to lift the moratorium on deep-water wells for farming.

On Wednesday, the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance appeared before the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry, which has been holding a series of heavily-attended hearings on the issue.

Ann Worth, executive director of the alliance, told MLAs on the committee her organization has been given assurances by scientists at the Department of Environment that P.E.I. has plenty of groundwater and that it recharges at a high rate.

But given that mussels, oysters and finfish operations rely on healthy waterways to grow their fish, Worth said she hopes every effort will be made to ensure the science is sound.

“We need to be rock solid in our view that there will be no detrimental impacts from incremental deep-water wells for agriculture use.”

A public debate over whether to allow farmers to drill deep wells so they can irrigate their crops when the rain doesn’t fall has been ongoing for several months.

It has sparked intense public interest, with the committee room being filled to capacity in the normally empty public gallery and dozens of groups and citizens lining up to share their views.

Environmental advocates say they worry the wells could deplete the province’s groundwater levels if used for industrial farming.

Groundwater is the province’s only source of drinking water.

But Cavendish Farm president Robert Irving told the committee earlier this month P.E.I. potatoes are not meeting consistency standards required by the french fry industry.

One dry summer day can ruin a whole crop, he explained. With irrigation, P.E.I. growers could not only produce more consistent potatoes, but more of them, as it would increase their yield per acre.

Cavendish Farms may be forced to downsize its operations and investments in P.E.I. if the government does not lift its moratorium on deep-water wells farmers, Irving told the committee.

On Wednesday, a hydro geologist from the University of Calgary told MLAs she believes P.E.I. does indeed have a plentiful amount of groundwater.

Cathy Ryan suggested any new wells should be drilled significantly deeper than has been done to date to ensure any water extracted for irrigation would not interfere with nearby waterways.

“They would be more expensive to drill and to instrument, and they would take a little bit more time and energy, but I think that you can pump more water for irrigation… but it’s going to take some communication and cooperation between all parties.”

But Worth said the province must satisfy the ongoing concerns and questions that have been raised by those worried about an increase in groundwater use for potato farming.

“Can we say today that we have conducted comprehensive analysis in this area?” Worth said.

“We have to think clearly and comprehensively about any and all potential impacts of decisions that may adjust in any way our relationship between land and water.”

The Aquaculture Alliance called for a comprehensive review of the province’s water protection and extraction policies as well as a land and sea task force to be struck.

The province did announce earlier this month it would bring in a water act to oversee management of the Island’s water resources.

Environment Minister Janice Sherry also stated the moratorium on deep wells for farming will not be lifted until after this act and its regulations are in place.

In the meantime, the committee will continue its hearings on the issue.