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EDITORIAL: A simmering hot potato

Robert K. Irving, president of Cavendish Farms, delivered the luncheon speech at this year’s Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting.
Robert K. Irving, president of Cavendish Farms, delivered the luncheon speech at this year’s Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting May 14. – Terrence McEachern

Government awaits results of scientific study measuring effects of deep-water wells on province’s water table and recharge rates.

The opening salvo in the 2018 debate on high capacity wells on Prince Edward Island was fired Monday by Cavendish Farms president Robert K. Irving — coming on the eve of a new potato planting season.

The controversial issue of an agricultural moratorium on deep-water wells was on hiatus since legislators debated the new Water Act, passed last December with a final amendment to ban fracking. The act outlines how P.E.I.’s groundwater supply should be monitored, regulated and protected – but was oddly silent on those wells.

RELATED: P.E.I. Water Act passes with amendment to prohibit fracking

Mr. Irving said the only thing which saved P.E.I.’s 2017 potato crop from being decimated by dry weather was one, timely, heavy rainfall. His comments are a warning that Cavendish Farms seeks guaranteed quality and quantity from its contract growers — a result enhanced by lifting the moratorium. Mr. Irving noted the light P.E.I. crop last year couldn't meet the company’s processing needs and it had to import a lot of spuds.

Supplemental irrigation is supported by the P.E.I. Potato Board, whose request to lift the 2002 moratorium resulted in an intense, province-wide debate the past three years, culminating with a white paper and finally passage of the landmark Water Act.

Water is especially important to Islanders because we’re so vulnerable. Groundwater is our only source and there is concern that additional high capacity wells will deplete our water table, the aquifer could collapse and sea water will rush in.

Deep-water wells shouldn’t be solely a potato issue. Of the 288 wells today, which the province classifies as high capacity, agricultural irrigation accounts for 36. The biggest users are cities and towns with 87 wells while aquaculture uses 62 — but many of those are salt water. Other users include industrial/commercial, fire departments and golf courses. And don't forget the 20,000 low-capacity wells in residential use.

While opponents are quick to protest wells drilled for potatoes or aquaculture, they were silent when a new wellfield — bristling with deep-water wells — was drilled to provide additional sources for Charlottetown’s growing water needs.

It’s a case of discrimination based on population.

The P.E.I. potato industry, estimated to generate almost $1 billion in annual economic activity, is too important to leave to chance. The well-being of the Island’s economy often hangs in the balance during a hot, dry summer — great for tourism but lethal for crops.

It's interesting that critically-important regulations for the Water Act haven’t been disclosed. Government promised that high-capacity wells would be addressed in those regulations but don’t count on them being debated anytime soon with a provincial election approaching.

Regulations are in the hand of science — where they really should be — as government awaits the results of a scientific study that will measure the effects of deep-water wells on the province’s water table and recharge rates.

Mr. Irving says that to meet the challenge of dry weather conditions, industry leaders and the government need to come together and find a sustainable solution.

Are there other options to wells? Now is the time to voice them.

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