PEI

Green, PC MLAs question new minister on changes to P.E.I.'s Water Act

The P.E.I. Green Party is raising concerns about a move by government to allow existing holding ponds — and the agricultural wells that feed into them — to continue operating indefinitely after the province’s new Water Act is proclaimed in June.

Grandfathering of existing holding ponds will put some watersheds at risk, says Opposition environment critic

Holding ponds like this one in Shamrock, P.E.I., were at the centre of a debate in the legislature Friday. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The P.E.I. Green Party is raising concerns about a move by government to allow existing holding ponds — and the agricultural wells that feed into them — to continue operating indefinitely after the province's new Water Act is proclaimed in June.

"In a lot of the province that's not going to be a big deal, but in areas like the Dunk and Wilmot River, we're already hearing concern from farmers about waterways going dry," Opposition environment critic Lynne Lund told reporters Friday, after raising the issue in the legislature during question period.

Holding ponds have been a controversial work-around for the agricultural industry in light of a long-standing moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells.

By setting up multiple smaller wells to pump water into a holding pond, farmers have been able to store large amounts of water for irrigation without requiring wells that pump 345 cubic metres or more of water per day — the official definition of a high-capacity well under the Water Act.

But under the new law, passed in 2017 but still not in effect, multiple wells are considered to be the same as a high-capacity well if they draw an equivalent amount of water.

The people who built them have a considerable amount of money put into them.— PC MLA Steven Myers

Originally, regulations on water extraction gave farmers five years to bring the holding ponds into compliance by limiting the pumps that feed them to below the level of a single high-capacity well.

But when government announced two weeks ago the Water Act would finally be proclaimed June 16, it said those holding ponds would be "grandfathered in," a change in the regulations that allows new licences to be issued to keep those wells — and any more that are built before the law comes into effect — operating at their current capacities indefinitely.

'No one broke the law'

During debate, Lund said the province's previous environment minister Natalie Jameson, shuffled to education in February, "said that she supported a moratorium on constructing these ponds, while at the same time, was working to grandfather them in."

"I think grandfathering them in is really important," responded the new Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action Steven Myers.

"No one broke the law and no one recommended anybody broke the law because the holding ponds were legal.... The holding ponds have always been legal."

Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action Steven Myers says the province now has and will continue to have the power to shut wells down in times of water scarcity. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

Myers said the previous Liberal government encouraged the construction of holding ponds, posting information on government's website on how to construct them.

"The people who built them have a considerable amount of money put into them."

Myers told the house that, while the wells have been grandfathered in, they will still require new permits in five years.

"A permit means there has to be an adequate amount of water, that we monitor it, we monitor how much water is being used," Myers said, adding that the province now has and will continue to have the power to shut wells down in times of water scarcity.

But Lund said with the change in the proposed regulations, "we will see hindsight if we have a problem, but we will not see proactive oversight to prevent those problems from occurring in the first place."

Myers says 'willing to work with' committee

The revised regulations are required to be presented to the province's standing committee on natural resources 90 days before they can be adopted by government.

Opposition environment critic Lynne Lund expressed concern that government will consider recommendations on the revised regulations made by the standing committee on natural resources. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

But Lund, a committee member, and PC MLA Cory Deagle, the chair of the committee, both questioned government's willingness to consider the committee's recommendations.

Lund noted the outgoing minister blamed the committee for delays in implementing the Water Act, saying government had been waiting for the committee's recommendations based on the previous regulations.

Those recommendations were delivered in November, but government is moving ahead without implementing them, except for a recommendation to actually implement the Water Act.

"I'm more than willing to work with you to get advice, but I don't want to make any mistake where the decisions are going to be made," Myers said in response to those concerns.

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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