Pace on P.E.I. nitrate pollution 'glacial'

Some watershed groups on P.E.I. say the Ghiz government has failed to tackle a nitrate problem that is clogging waterways with vegetation and choking out other life.
Sea lettuce lines the shore near Stanhope, P.E.I. ((Erin Moore/CBC))

Some watershed groups on P.E.I. say the Ghiz government has failed to tackle a nitrate problem that is clogging waterways with vegetation and choking out other life.

Two years ago, a commission looking into the issue made 32 sweeping recommendations. It called six of them absolutely essential. Two of those involved the agriculture community: a mandatory three-year crop rotation and matching nutrients more carefully with crop needs.

"They don't seem to want to move on it, whether they're afraid politically," said Dave Latimer, a member of the local watershed group at Covehead Bay.

Latimer's house in Stanhope looks out over the bay, and he doesn't like the colour he sees.

Six essential recommendations to curb nitrates:

  • Improve public education on protecting water quality.
  • Reduce nutrient loading from sewage treatment systems.
  • Support watershed-based water management planning.
  • A mandatory three-year crop rotation.
  • Match nutrients with crop needs to reduce nitrogen leaching.
  • Identify high nitrate areas.

"It's like a potato field out in the water there when you look out my front window," he said.

The green comes from sea lettuce bobbing on the surface. The vegetation blocks light getting to the bottom, blocking other growth, but it gets worse when it dies. As the sea lettuce rots it sucks oxygen from the water, creating what is known as anoxic conditions.

That can kill all plant and animal life from entire sections of river systems.

Mike Van Den Heuvel, a biologist who studies nitrates on P.E.I., is frustrated by what he sees as government inaction on the problem.

"I think the pace on the nitrate issue itself has been fairly glacial," he said.

Government promises

An aerial view of the mouth of Winter River shows a distinct green tinge along the shore. ((Kevin Yarr/CBC))

When the 2008 report on nitrates came out, Premier Robert Ghiz said his government would move on the six key recommendations, acknowledging some of them wouldn't be popular.

Environment Minister Richard Brown said the government has made progress. He said it has increased buffer zones from 10 to 15 metres, and introduced regulations that require a grassy area between the buffer zones and row crops.

"I'm not going to pass a bunch of regulations, and pass a bunch of laws and send out a bunch of enforcement officers, in order for compliance," said Brown.

"I'm going to work with the agricultural community."

Van Den Heuvel acknowledges the government has done a good job of putting incentives for changes to agricultural practices in place, but he doesn't believe that will be enough.

"It comes to the issue of the carrot versus the stick, and I certainly think you need both," he said.

"We have strong carrots here on Prince Edward Island with regards to this but certainly I would think watershed groups would agree that you need to have enforceable regulation as well."

After decades of loading nitrates into the environment, he said, strong action is required.

"We certainly need to at least move to a mandatory three-year rotation for everybody, and I think ultimately you're going to have to seriously look at a four-year rotation for potatoes," he said.

Brown said he'll provide a full update on the nitrate situation this fall in the legislature.