PEI·CBC Investigates

P.E.I.'s new Water Act won't protect rivers if province still allows pumping during droughts, group says

A P.E.I. water protection group is raising concerns that the Water Act might not improve things if the province goes against its own rules, as it did approving farmers' use of surface water for irrigation from the Dunk River during a drought last August.

Documents show 5 farms allowed to draw Dunk River water in 2020 when levels already low

A number of farmers were allowed to take surface water from the Dunk River, shown flowing through Breadalbane, P.E.I., during a drought in August 2020. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

The Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water is concerned the Water Act might not improve things if the province goes against its own rules, as it did approving farmers' use of surface water for irrigation from the Dunk River during a drought last August. 

"What worries us is when there are demands for water, is the government going to bend and break their own rules?" said coalition chair Catherine O'Brien. 

CBC News has obtained documents from the P.E.I. Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action under freedom of information legislation that shed more light on the situation that occurred during last summer's drought. 

By the end of July last year, the documents show there were severe drought conditions in the Kinkora-Bedeque area of the province.

Five farmers in that region had a meeting with government environment officials and the minister at the time, Natalie Jameson, on July 30 and asked to be able to use surface water from the Dunk River so that their crops didn't fail.

This chart from the province's stream level page shows what happened to Dunk River water levels in the last seven months of 2020. Note the large dip in August, when water was removed from the river system during a drought. (P.E.I. Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action)

The owners of Country View Farms, Green Field Farms, Havenlee Farms, Smith Farms and McCardle Brothers agreed to stagger the use of the water so as not to put too much additional pressure on the waterway. 

According to the documents, environment staff reminded the group that farmers are allowed to use surface water permits as long as possible, "meaning that the [water] levels are considered too low when the shut off occurs." Permits for water use are suspended under P.E.I. regulations when water levels drop by 30 per cent — or what's called the maintenance flow — of a waterway. 

The minister agreed to review the request. 

One farmer fined twice after continuing to pump 

The following day there was significant rainfall, increasing the water levels in the Dunk River to within the acceptable cutoff maintenance level, so the department granted permission for the farmers to use surface water to irrigate their crops for a 48-hour window.

According to the documents, one of the five farmers resumed pumping about a week after that permission expired, and was fined. "And the same grower subsequently began pumping again and received another fine." 

Dry conditions continued, and the group asked for another meeting August 18 with the premier, asking for another round of staggered pumping. According to provincial data, the Dunk River was already 5 cm below the cut-off for water use at that point. 

The documents show, despite that, environment officials approved a week of staggered pumping.

Provincial officials reached out to the group after seeing a "sharp drop" in water levels after the first couple of days of pumping. 

Government correspondence from August 2020 show concern over 'a sharp drop' in Dunk River levels as farms drew out water in the midst of a drought. (Government of P.E.I.)

Provincial stream level information shows water levels in the Dunk had dropped a further 5 cm. 

CBC News contacted the five farms but were either declined an interview or calls were not returned. 

Only good if rules followed, says coalition 

When CBC News showed the documents to the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water, O'Brien said she was concerned about the province's decision-making.

She said the 30-per-cent threshold for pumping water "is already stressing the river," even without the province granting exemptions to let farms take water when the level drops further. "When you start to draw more down, some living beings, some fish, some invertebrates, are going to die. And so why was it allowed?"  

P.E.I. Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action Steven Myers told CBC News he isn't "intimately knowledgeable of the file" because he didn't hold the portfolio last August, but he said "there were drought conditions and the crops were failing and there was a need to help offset that."

He added: "We have to do our best that we can to, I guess, thread the needle when it comes to our industries here on Prince Edward Island and our environment." 

Drought contingency plans now required, says minister  

Myers said he believes the new Water Act goes "a million miles beyond what we currently had to protect water on PEI." For example, he said that under the new regulations, high water users, including farmers, will be asked to submit a drought contingency plan when they request or renew a water permit.

Myers said these plans could include how they intend to reduce consumption, or stagger use based on the water that is available.

Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action Steven Myers has called the new Water Act 'the most consulted-on bill probably in the history of the P.E.I. government.' (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

"So it is a more powerful tool in how we allow people to use water," he said.

"The situation in the Dunk River, that is rectified by, in advance, asking what do you plan to do [in drought situations] and forces the agriculture community to have a clear pathway forward on how they plan to do it."

Asked whether he would approve use if a similar situation happened this summer, Myers declined to answer what he called a hypothetical question. But he did say that if he was considering allowing something similar this summer, he would make sure the Watershed Alliance was part of the negotiations, something that didn't happen last year. 

"I feel bad for the farmers out there — maybe not the one who kept pumping after he wasn't supposed to, but the ones out there who are just following the rules and working with government and kind of being treated like they're doing something untoward, because they're not.

"They're just trying to survive [on] a family farm and raise families out there. That's not something that anyone should be ashamed of trying to do." 

'Deep trouble' predicted

Meanwhile, water protection coalition chair O'Brien said the province has come up with a good Water Act that she said should provide better safeguards, but again she said the regulations are only better if they're enforced. 

"If we don't trust our government to enforce them, they're really not worth much."

She sympathizes with the dire situation the farmers were in last summer, but is still critical of the decision.

"I understand we don't want crops to fail, but at the same time if we do that every time … we could be in deep trouble as far as our water health."

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Chapin is an award-winning, multi-platform journalist who works for CBC P.E.I. She has also worked for CBC in Halifax, Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C. If you have a story idea to pass on, you can reach her at laura.chapin@cbc.ca.

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