Organic farmers add voices to calls to expand irrigation on P.E.I.

Suffering from the effects of hotter, dryer weather along with farmers using traditional methods, organic producers are calling for a comprehensive strategy for agricultural water use on P.E.I.

'It's a wild west' with multiple shallow wells and water holding ponds, committee told

Suffering from the effects of hotter, dryer weather along with farmers using traditional methods, organic producers are calling for a comprehensive strategy for agricultural water use on P.E.I. (CBC)

Members of the P.E.I. Certified Organic Producers Co-operative put forward a detailed plan Thursday to increase and manage irrigation on Island farms.

Appearing before the province's Standing Committee on Natural Resources, the group said P.E.I.'s ongoing moratorium on new high-capacity wells for irrigation — implemented in 2002 — hasn't achieved the goal of safeguarding the province's fresh water supply.

And the group's research co-ordinator Karen Murchison said the ongoing debate around whether to lift the moratorium has "really distracted I think from the bigger conversation that we really need to be having about how we value, protect and manage our very precious resource, which is water on this Island."

The group's presentation comes more than three years after MLAs passed new legislation, the Water Act, meant to manage the province's water supply.

But that legislation still has not been enacted by government, pending another draft of regulations as the province looks for a way to provide the irrigation that farmers say they require, while at the same time satisfying those who worry that allowing more water for agriculture could leave streams or household wells without enough.

Urgent need for water cited

Until now, the case put forward on behalf of producers has primarily been voiced by some of the biggest players tied to P.E.I.'s potato industry, including the P.E.I. Potato Board and processor Cavendish Farms.

The last few years, it seems like the heat and the wind have turned up even more.- Matt Ramsay

Just like those other industry players, organic farmers described an urgent need to allow farmers access to more water to grow their crops.

Matt Ramsay, whose farm includes traditional and organic production, said rainfall in 18 of the last 20 years has been below the level needed to produce an optimal crop on P.E.I.

"The last few years, it seems like the heat and the wind have turned up even more," Ramsay said. 

"We need to consider at what point we can't reverse the effects of this… Once farms go under, there's no coming back. And we are at a point where the rainfall we've been seeing is not enough to at least stabilize crop yields."

'We need to consider at what point we can’t reverse the effects of this…. Once farms go under, there’s no coming back,' farmer Matt Ramsay warned the committee. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

The co-op's plan proposes making drinking water the top priority for water usage on P.E.I., with water for food production the second priority.

That would make farmers a higher priority than other industrial users of water, such as golf courses and car washes. Proponents of the agriculture industry have frequently pointed out the moratorium doesn't include wells to supply those other industrial users.

The co-op is urging government develop a specific management plan for water used in agriculture, though. Representatives suggest that plan should require farmers to follow certain management practices around tillage and crop rotations to maximize water retention before they are allowed to irrigate.

Their water usage would be metered, and the co-op suggested there be a discussion around requiring farmers to pay for the water.

The group also said water levels would have to be closely monitored throughout the growing season in every watershed, with the ability to turn off irrigation taps if levels drop too far.

"I do think there's going to be a lot of situations where we're just not going to be able to meet everyone's water demands, because we'll start seeing those upstream ecosystems suffer," said Ramsay.

Moratorium has failed, group says

Co-op chair Brian MacKay said the moratorium isn't serving to protect the water supply because the agriculture industry has found a work-around, with some farmers installing multiple low-capacity wells and using those to fill holding ponds.

The net result to our groundwater? It's a wild west right now.​​​​​- Brian MacKay

"The net result to our groundwater? It's a wild west right now," said MacKay, noting that even more holding ponds and wells are being dug in his area for next season.

"The moratorium has not restricted water. It's restricted the deepwater well, and that's all."

Karen Murchison, the research co-ordinator for the P.E.I. Certified Organic Producers Co-operative, told a legislative committee Thursday that water is a 'very precious resource' on the Island and should be managed that way. (CBC)

Government officials have said they're working on a second draft of water extraction regulations after the first draft was presented in July 2019, but the target date to deliver the regulations has been pushed back numerous times. 

The King government has also said it needs the new regulations in place before the Water Act can be proclaimed into law. It is required to present the regulations to committee 90 days before they're adopted by cabinet.

Committee chair Cory Deagle said he didn't know when the regulations might be put forward, and there was no immediate response from the Department of Environment, Water and Climate Change on a request for a timeline.

While waiting, the committee has been providing further recommendations on the Water Act. In November, it recommended that the government immediately proclaim the legislation, and expand the moratorium to include all new high-capacity wells except those for residential use.

More from CBC P.E.I.


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