Concerns raised over lack of regulations for irrigation holding ponds in P.E.I.

Concerns are being raised over the lack of new regulations for irrigation holding ponds in the new P.E.I. Water Act.

'We have to protect water for Islanders and for farmers'

Many farmers say irrigation ponds are crucial for their crops, especially in hot, dry weather. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Concerns over a lack of regulations for irrigation holding ponds are already being voiced, just hours after the provincial government announced the long-awaited new Water Act would come into effect on June 16.

The act will regulate how water is extracted for use, including use for agriculture.

It contains a provision to grandfather existing clusters of low-capacity wells, such as holding ponds used for agricultural irrigation.

The grandfathering of all existing ponds is a one-size-fits-all approach that isn't appropriate, according to Lynne Lund, Opposition environment critic and Summerside-Wilmot MLA.

"We are now being told essentially that holding ponds never need to be compliant," she said.

Farmers with large fields use irrigation equipment to supply water to dry fields. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The legislative committee reviewing the act had recommended all holding ponds become compliant with the regulations for withdrawing water within two years, Lund told CBC News.

She said every watershed in P.E.I. is different and many aren't able to withstand this continued level of water withdrawal. 

"I've heard from farmers on the Dunk River who are already concerned that we are over-tapping that resource. If we want agriculture to be sustainable into the future, we have to protect water for Islanders and for farmers and that means looking at it on a watershed-by-watershed basis," said Lund. 

While she is pleased to see the act finally proclaimed after years of debate, Lund hopes the minister will be open to further suggestions about the regulations around it.

'Risking the stream health'

"I don't think that reflects the spirit of the act," said Catherine O'Brien of the P.E.I. Coalition for the Protection of Water. 

She said holding ponds should be subject to regulations in the same way irrigation wells will be.

Dusty, dry fields are the reason farmers have been urging the province to end its moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"If they're using pumps to fill them, and you're continuously doing that — which you'd have to during a drought — that's a concern. The water table can be going down, it can be risking the stream health in the area, it can be affecting other people's wells, and there's nothing right now that regulates them," O'Brien said.

The government said the moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells that was introduced in 2002 will remain in place.

It said low-capacity wells that feed the holding ponds need to come into compliance with the Water Act.

"When they get in compliance, they will be permitted and regulated. Decisions on permit granting or renewal will factor the impact they have on a watershed," the province said in an email to CBC.

We have to look at all the available tools in the toolbox— Ron Maynard, P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture

Farmers have been lobbying for more access to irrigation, especially during hot, dry summers that have shrunk their yields. 

The province announced Friday that research will be done to study the impacts of high-capacity wells in agricultural irrigation and will study the impact on soil health. That work will be done by the Canadian Rivers Institute at UPEI, funded jointly by government and the private sector. 

"We hope it'll prove what we've been saying all along that there is sufficient water to allow for supplemental irrigation in a controlled manner," said Ron Maynard, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

His organization has submitted a strategy for holding ponds, catchment ponds and surface irrigation to the province for review. 

"We have to look at all the available tools in the toolbox to have a sustainable farming industry here in Prince Edward Island," said Maynard.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Kerry Campbell


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