PEI·CBC Investigates

After drought last year, holding ponds may be best way forward, says expert

The P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture is asking the province to create an Island-wide irrigation strategy after farmers risked losing crops or having crop damage due to several dry summers.

UPEI water expert says well-managed holding ponds better than surface water use during drought

The availability of water for farm irrigation has been a hot issue in Prince Edward Island recently, with a new Water Act about to come into effect on June 16. This photo shows the Dunk River in central P.E.I. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

The P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture is asking the province to create an Island-wide irrigation strategy to help protect farmers at risk of losing crops or having crop damage due to drought.

"Last summer is an example of a growing season where it's simply not sustainable for us to grow crops of any kind without water," said executive director Robert Godfrey. 

Documents CBC News obtained through freedom of information requests show many areas of the province were experiencing severe drought by the end of July 2020, a situation which continued in August. That prompted five farms in the Kinkora-Bedeque area to ask the province to allow them to use surface water from the Dunk River to irrigate their crops.

The province gave permission for staggered pumping over the course of a week, despite the Dunk River already being five centimetres below the water levels provincial regulations require in order for water to be extracted.

Environmental and water groups have been critical of that decision, saying water use cut-offs are created to protect the aquatic life in the waterways and should be strictly observed. 

Provincial data showed that the water level in the Dunk River dropped another five centimetres after a couple of days of pumping by the farms. 

Dry summers boost need for strategy 

The Federation of Agriculture wasn't involved in the Dunk River request or the discussions the group of farmers held with provincial officials, but Godfrey said the farmers made the request to ensure their crops survived the extremely dry weather. 

Robert Godfrey, executive director of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, says farmers who need water in order to keep crops alive must find a way to irrigate responsibly in increasingly dry summers. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

Even fields with high amounts of organic matter, which is thought to hold moisture better, were bone-dry this past summer, he said.

"I've talked to farmers who had organic matter levels of four and five per cent, which is extremely high, and they told me in late August of last year that great soil was simply just dry organic matter. And I don't think that's going to go away." 

Climatologists in the province have been warning that summers with low rainfall in July and August are becoming the norm, and Godfrey said because of that, farmers need to find a way to irrigate responsibly in those conditions. 

"No farmer in this province is interested in draining streams or the aquifers. I mean, we're raising families as well, so we've got to find that balance, for sure." 

No provincial commitment yet 

The Federation of Agriculture made a submission in January to provincial officials on the need for a provincewide irrigation strategy. Godfrey said there have been some conversations with government about it but no commitment yet. 

The Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action sent a statement to CBC News that said: "The department is currently reviewing the Federation's submission and are open to further conversations with the stakeholders involved." 

The minister has said, under the new Water Act regulations, all high water users, including farmers, will be required to submit a drought contingency plan when they apply for or request a renewal of a water permit. But Godfrey said he believes a provincewide strategy offering guidance to farmers would be more effective.

Water expert Mike van den Heuvel, a professor at UPEI, thinks it would be helpful to have a water-use committee, made up of a number of interest groups, to weigh in when difficult decisions have to be made, including ones similar to the Dunk River drought decision last year. 

UPEI expert urges tougher standards 

He said there is a reason provincial regulations say water shouldn't be used once the maintenance flow of a stream reaches the cutoff of a 30 per cent drop in water levels.

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)

"We know certainly from many international studies, if we go below that, we're posing a high risk to wildlife within the stream, as well as increased temperature too," said van den Heuvel. 

In fact, he would like P.E.I. to have a stricter cutoff, because he thinks it would be wise to be more protective of Island water resources. But he said the difficulty with that is that P.EI. is struggling to meet the 30-per-cent benchmark; he doesn't think a tougher standard would be achievable.

Van den Heuvel does think drought contingency plans under the new Water Act regulations could help, allowing for advanced planning. He said he knew in May 2020 that water levels in P.E.I. were going to be a concern, because levels were already lower than usual after the spring recharge. 

"It's like a bathtub emptying.… If you're basically starting with your bathtub half full in May or June already, you're going to have much lower levels by August." 

Holding ponds better than surface water use

Van den Heuvel said planning early might have helped avoid decisions to allow surface water-use during a drought in the Dunk River last summer. 

For example, he said using water stored early in the season in holding ponds would be a better tactic than using surface water later, explaining that taking surface water has more impact on water levels than using groundwater. 

"This is why I'm very much for holding ponds.… At least the holding pond gives a farmer a buffer that if you have to stop pumping, whether it's from the stream or groundwater, you have some buffer of water there to help you out." 

UPEI scientist Mike van den Heuvel says responsibly operated holding ponds may be better for P.E.I.'s overall water health than surface pumping in times of crisis. (CBC)

It's guidance like this that could be included in a provincial irrigation strategy, said Godfrey from the Federation of Agriculture. 

The province has contracted van den Heuvel to do research into the best ways to use water that balance the needs of users with protection of the waterways. But the UPEI professor said findings from that work are at least six years away.

In the meantime, Godfrey said, farmers need to know how they can access the water they need responsibly. 

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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