UPEI prof says research proposal could solve high-capacity wells dilemma

A UPEI professor says a 4-year study he is proposing could produce the data needed to determine the impact of high-capacity irrigation wells potato farmers say they need to survive future droughts.

Implementation of Water Act is stalled around question of irrigation wells

The P.E.I. Potato Board has been lobbying for the provincial government's moratorium on high-capacity wells to be lifted, saying such wells are needed in times of severe dry weather. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Five years after the P.E.I. government began development of the Water Act and three years after the legislation passed, a UPEI biology professor outlined a proposed research project to a committee of MLAs Thursday which he said could finally answer the single, contentious question which started the whole process in the first place.

That question: What would be the impact if P.E.I. were to lift its 18-year-old moratorium on high-capacity irrigation wells?

Michael van den Heuvel, the Canada Research Chair in Watershed Ecological Integrity at UPEI, is proposing a study jointly financed by government and the private sector. This study would involve installing new high-capacity irrigation wells on four P.E.I. farms and measuring the impact their use has on the local watershed.

He said that while the results, which would take four years to collect, might provide the information government needs to decide what to do about the moratorium, they might also provide data the public needs to see.

"To be clear, the province does have a lot of data. They are very knowledgeable," van den Heuvel told reporters after making a presentation to the province's Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability. 

Michael van den Heuvel answers questions Thursday at a legislative committee hearing on water use on Prince Edward Island. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

"I think the public as much as anything wants, sort of, scientifically independent, as much as possible, answers on this topic."

In January, former environment minister Brad Trivers said he wanted "unbiased, third-party research" on the topic with no industry or government involvement.

On Thursday, Green MLA Stephen Howard questioned why industry, through the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, would be involved as partners in the research.

"The desire to have industry opinions out of the process is exactly what Islanders want to see," said Howard. "They just want to make sure that the process is scientific and that we have good, solid data free from opinions."

Industry involvement needed: professor

Van den Heuvel said industry involvement was required to secure federal funding. He also said arrangements had been made with Irving-owned Cavendish Farms to compensate farmers involved in the study for the cost of irrigation equipment. 

Both Cavendish Farms and the Federation of Agriculture have called on the province to end its moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells, a call reiterated by both organizations Thursday at separate events.

CBC reached out to Cavendish Farms on the story but hasn't heard back yet. 

Federation says farmers need wells to compete

Speaking to the committee, Roy Maynard, president of the federation, said a lack of irrigation is making it harder for P.E.I. farmers to compete. "It's a tool that we on Prince Edward Island do not have. We have to compete with our suppliers across the world. They have that option. We don't."

Van den Heuvel said the project would cost between $1 million and $2 million. Some baseline data has already been collected, and he said the work could start in earnest immediately — given the necessary government approvals and funding.

He said the research would take up to four years, but that the Water Act could be implemented before that, with the moratorium kept in place. When the research is completed, he said, government could revisit the issue.

"Government wants to deal with this," said Finance Minister Darlene Compton, the only cabinet minister to attend the meeting. "It's something that's been going on way too long and I think it's been an unfair slant to farmers."

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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