P.E.I. has all the data it needs to lift 'silly' moratorium on irrigation wells, says minister

P.E.I.’s Environment Minister Steven Myers says the province has all the data it needs to end the province’s 19-year moratorium on high capacity irrigation wells, and says the moratorium won’t be needed once the province’s Water Act comes into effect June 16.

Steven Myers suggests moratorium will become redundant once Water Act comes in June 16

P.E.I. farmers have been using holding ponds like this one as a work-around because of a 19-year-old moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells. On Tuesday, P.E.I.'s environment minister announced a new moratorium affecting construction of some holding ponds, then suggested the province could soon lift the moratorium on high-capacity wells. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Environment Minister Steven Myers says the province has all the data it needs to end the province's 19-year moratorium on high capacity irrigation wells, and says the moratorium won't be needed once the province's Water Act comes into effect June 16.

That comes after 19 years of successive P.E.I. governments — including that of current Premier Dennis King — saying they needed more research in order to decide what to do with the moratorium.

The news also came the same day Myers enacted another moratorium, on the wells used to fill holding ponds, the work-around farmers have been using because of the moratorium on high-capacity wells.

"We know there's lots of water there because we have the proof through data," said Myers. "We have 30 years worth of data and we have 19 years of punting this moratorium down the road. And it's about time that we put an end to it."

"A moratorium that says you as a farmer can't have water, but a golf course can or a cruise ship can or car wash can, seems a little bit silly. And I think that we have to look for fairness in how we deal with water in this province."

It was in February 2002 that the Progressive Conservative environment minister of the day Chester Gillan announced the province would provide no more permits for high-capacity irrigation wells citing "concerns about the impact of climate change on weather patterns and increased demand for irrigation."

The moratorium was pending a hydrological study to begin the following spring, which at the time Gillan described as "a comprehensive study to ensure we are making the right decision in the long term."

Environment Minister Steven Myers said a moratorium restricting water use for farmers but not car washes, cruise ships or golf courses 'seems a little bit silly.' (CBC)

Nearly two decades later, it's not clear what became of that study, but the concerns around climate change and the need for irrigation have only increased.

Successive governments have echoed Gillan's concerns and the need for more research, while the moratorium has become a political football, and the focus of a larger policy debate around how to protect the province's water supply.

PCs promised 'science-based research'

In its 2019 election platform, the King PCs promised to "continue the moratorium on deep-water wells and obtain independent studies to provide conclusive, science-based research to develop a permanent policy on their use."

Last September, King suggested a research proposal from the Canadian Rivers Institute made before the province's Standing Committee on Natural Resources might provide "a good step in the direction to find out what if anything we can do with water in the future."

P.E.I.'s Opposition says the province lacks data on water capacity and usage specific to individual watersheds, like the Dunk River. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

A version of the same proposal had been put forward to the previous Liberal government by potato processor Cavendish Farms.

The all-party natural resources committee never provided a recommendation the research go ahead, but government decided to fund it anyway. The results are meant to provide insight into the best ways to balance the needs of water users with protection of Island waterways, and aren't expected for at least six years.

P.E.I. lacks data on specific watersheds, say Greens

The Opposition has been calling for an irrigation strategy, but says the province doesn't have the data it needs to develop one, outlining water capacities and recharge rates for each specific watershed on P.E.I.

In the legislature Tuesday, Myers said the province has all the data it needs to develop the strategy.

Then speaking to reporters afterwards, he said that data is also all the province needs to make a decision on high-capacity wells.

He also said the Water Act, which incorporates the moratorium, will also negate the need for it.

"I'm not sure that the [Water] Act and the moratorium aren't doing the same thing," Myers said. "The Act already gives us what the moratorium is giving us. It gives us strict control over the water."

Opposition environment critic Lynne Lund questioned why, if government has the data it needs to make a decision on high-capacity wells, it's only talking about acting on it now.

Green MLA Lynne Lund said ultimately the question isn't about whether the moratorium should be lifted, but rather about how much water is available and how to share it equitably. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

Lund also said there would be "no reason" for government to commission the Canadian Rivers Institute research "if they already had the answers that they were looking for."

She said Myers' department has only a partial picture, relying on provincial averages for annual recharge to determine how much water is available across the Island.

While the amount of recharge doesn't vary much from location to location, she said the amount of water drawn from that recharge does — especially in high-use areas like the Dunk River.

Lund said whether the moratorium is lifted isn't the key issue.

"What we need is to be able to protect water for islanders and we need to be able to support farmers," she said. "There is a certain amount of water that we can use."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.


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