Dry P.E.I. conditions have some farmers calling on government to lift high-capacity well ban
'This is a wake-up call, in that way, not to lift the moratorium but to look at all our water use'
Some P.E.I. farmers are calling for government to lift its moratorium on high-capacity agricultural wells to allow more irrigation as the province enters "a near-crisis situation" in terms of dryness, said the executive director of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.
Robert Godfrey said the lack of rain has decimated crops this year and the province needs to take another look at lifting the moratorium.
"We're seeing about a third of the rainfall now for the third or fourth month in a row," he said. "We need rain in a really bad way … about 30 millimetres of rain as soon as we can get it."
Some growers have lobbied the provincial government for years to lift the ban on drilling high-capacity wells in the province. The moratorium has been in place since 2002.
Godfrey questioned why other industries and municipalities have access to water and agriculture does not.
"We feel that's discriminatory," he said. "If the recharge is as adequate as they say, then why continue to exclude agriculture from allowing them to irrigate crops."
He said he'll be meeting with Premier Dennis King this week.
Focus should be on water conservation
Catherine O'Brien, spokesperson for the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water, said as troubling as it is for farmers dealing with the dry conditions, the province needs to focus on how to protect water for the future.
"This is a wake-up call, in that way, not to lift the moratorium but to look at all our water use and conservation efforts," she said.
Regarding recharge and how much water irrigation would use, O'Brien said studies are being done but water conservation and soil health are important and "it's not just about supplemental irrigation."
She said she doesn't disagree with Godfrey that other industries using irrigation when agriculture can't is unfair, but that those businesses should be examined as well.
"There are so many ways we should be focusing on water conservation and the protection of water," she said. "I think looking in that way it is discriminatory, but that shouldn't give licence to open up the moratorium."
If government is considering lifting the ban on high-capacity wells, the public deserves to know the reason, O'Brien said.
'Every year it's getting worse'
Kevin Murray, a potato farmer in Bedeque, said his farm, Murray Farms Ltd., has the ability to irrigate two-thirds of the potato crop because of a nearby pond.
It helps somewhat, he said, but because of the dry conditions he expects his irrigated crops to be an average haul at best this year.
"It's getting pretty bad. Plants are starting to shut down, they're not getting enough moisture to keep themselves alive," he said. "It's the driest it's been since at least 2001. Every year it's getting worse."
Some farms have seen 30 millimetres of rain since potatoes were put in the ground earlier this year, he said.
It's a worrying figure, he said, because potatoes need roughly 25 millimetres of rain per week to stay healthy.
"That's what we're trying to accomplish with irrigation, we're giving them that one inch of rain a week to keep them alive," he said. "Because when they start to go down on their own there's no bringing them back."
Murray said it's unfair how he can pull water from a nearby pond to irrigate his crops when not all farmers on P.E.I. who need water have access to it.
'The story has always been access to water'
Ryan Barrett, research and agronomy co-ordinator with the P.E.I. Potato Board, said growers have met with the government in the last couple weeks to see what can be done.
"The story has always been access to water. Lifting the moratorium based on science and based on sustainability and responsible use," he said.
Central parts of the province, especially on the South Shore and around Malpeque Bay are where it's worst, Barrett said. Access to water for farmers, particularly in areas like these, is going to be essential in the near future.
"With climate change we seem to be getting longer periods of dry weather in the summertime," he said.
"To keep the plants alive and keep the yields growing, at least steady if not growing … more farms need to have the ability to access water if it works for their operation."