Islanders speak out about irrigation holding ponds

About 20 Islanders got a first-hand look Thursday at what they say they consider a threat to water resources on P.E.I. — irrigation holding ponds.

'You can’t drink french fries at the end of the day'

A group of Islanders toured irrigation ponds including this one in Spring Valley on Thursday to discuss environmental effects. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

A convoy of vehicles made its way down the back roads north of Kensington, P.E.I., Thursday as a group of about 20 concerned Islanders got a first-hand look at what they said they consider a threat to water resources on P.E.I. — holding ponds for crop irrigation.

The group stopped to look at several of the ponds built in the area in recent years for potato growers seeking to improve yields while fighting long stretches of dry weather.

Tour organizer Chris Wall said he believes the ponds are depleting groundwater supplies. 

"I want people to be aware. A lot of these ponds were created in the back country, away from people. We've got to put a stop to this because it will be all across P.E.I. and we'll be waterless eventually."

Ponds fed by multiple wells

The group visited some of the seven holding ponds in the area owned and operated by Indian River Farms. Some of the ponds are built on raised berms, above ground level. All are supplied with groundwater by electric pumps, housed in sheds, that draw water from multiple low-capacity wells nearby.

Chris Wall was one of the organizers of the irrigation pond tour. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Tour co-organizer David Weale said he believes the holding ponds are a way companies are skirting the province's moratorium on high-capacity agricultural wells

"They're not allowed to do deep-water wells so they're doing shallow wells and emptying them into these ponds," said Weale. "It's a symptom of the aggression of modern agriculture."

Company says it's done research

Indian River Farms is owned by Mary Jean Irving and managed by her daughter Elizabeth. The younger Irving also owns Long River Farms in the area, and Mary Jean Irving's brother Robert Irving owns nearby Cavendish Farms.

Mary Jean Irving, left, owns Indian River Farms and her daughter Elizabeth, right, manages the company, which owns several holding ponds. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Mary Jean Irving defends the use of well-managed holding ponds.

"We have done a lot of work and research," she said, adding, "We have not stepped outside government regulations."

Irving said her company is in constant contact with P.E.I.'s Environment Department, which monitors the aquifer that provides the water. Irving said she believes people concerned about the holding ponds are misinformed.

"I think it's fear — fear of the unknown," said Irving. "Maybe we could have done a better job in educating people. Some have misconceptions that I don't think you'll ever change."

Two of the ponds owned by Indian River Farms were built in the 1990s, and five were built in recent years, according to Irving. 

Indian River Farms building new pond

Water from the ponds is pumped by underground pipes to fields equipped with irrigation equipment. About 40 percent of land owned by Indian River Farms has irrigation equipment. They hope to increase that to 50 percent, according to Elizabeth Irving.

The Irvings say they need irrigation to grow potatoes properly for the french fry processing market. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"With climate change and studies showing erratic weather and erratic rainfall, it's a good insurance policy to help with yield and quality, only on an as-needed basis to deal with crop failure," said Elizabeth Irving.

"Climate change — you're seeing it," added Mary Jean Irving. "The weather's changing and our yields have been down."

The tour group visited the new pond's construction site where the new pond is being installed. Some of the people took photos to share on social media.

"You can't drink french fries at the end of the day," said Wall. "Water is a precious resource."

Indian River Farms exceeds government requirements for operations of the holding ponds, Elizabeth Irving said. That has included contracting a hydrogeologist to study the effects of irrigation practices on groundwater. Those studies suggest farming is using less than one percent of the annual recharge from surface runoff and precipitation, according to Irving.

The company said it is currently building a new holding pond in the area, and once that is complete there are no plans for more.

More P.E.I. news


Brian Higgins


Brian Higgins joined CBC Prince Edward Island in 2002, following work in broadcasting, newspaper and magazine writing in central Canada. He follows law courts and justice issues on P.E.I., among other assignments.


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