Advisory council told popular russet Burbank potatoes use too much water, fertilizer

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on March 24, 2016

Most consumers have no idea what kind of potato makes a perfect french fry, but a public advisory group accepting input on the protection of the Island’s water supply has heard plenty about the spud.

Known for its length, the russet Burbank is the holy grail of french fries because, according to consumer tests, they’re tasty, hang over the box just right and look good.

But that thirsty tater is drawing attention for another reason when it comes to a new provincial Water Act.

“If we are going to continue to grow potatoes, we need to look at other varieties than russet Burbank that can be harvested earlier (using less water) and don’t require as much fertilizer,’’ suggests the P.E.I. Watershed Alliance.

It’s just one of the bevy of submissions presented to the Environmental Advisory Council calling for a water tax on heavy users, the appointment of an environmental ombudsman and even a ban on the russet potato.

The hot potato issue of how to balance the ethical use and reasonable protection of P.E.I.’s water supply is in the hands of the council, which held public meetings throughout the winter. Those submissions are available online and will be compiled into a final report this spring.

But turning the taps won’t be easy when the opinions run the gamut from endorsing organic farming and banning fall planting to calls for more deep water wells and a warning that the lack of water for irrigation puts Cavendish Farms, the province’s largest private-sector employer, in jeopardy.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation calls for a water tax based on irrigation and agricultural use and funds used to pay for water protection officers.

“As water becomes more limited due to climate change and increasing demands, every effort must be made to maximize this resource,” says the federation in its submission.

A number of groups support the removal of the deep water well moratorium provided scientific data shows no negative impact.

“We see benefits associated with the occasional need of extra water,’’ said John Hooper of the P.E.I. Soil and Crop association, referring to ponds. “Farmers who voluntarily want to irrigate on a monitored watershed . . . . should be permitted to irrigate.”

Even P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Allan McIsaac weighed in, suggesting a minor, but consistent trend, is showing up in P.E.I.

“Less rainfall during the early part of the growing season could cause an increase in demand for irrigation and slightly warmer winters have the potential to change precipitation from snow to rain….Quality water is essential for those involved in aquaculture, fisheries and agriculture.”

In its submittion, the P.E.I. Potato Board says a lack of moisture reduces the marketable yield potential of the crop, and irrigation over several weeks, even in the driest years, would only require five inches of water.

Meanwhile, the Kensington North watershed group calls for the deep water well moratorium to remain in place for 10 years while research on water trends is conducted.