PEI

More real-world data needed to weigh impact of extra irrigation, says watershed group

The P.E.I. Watershed Alliance says more data gathering, research and monitoring are needed in order to understand the impacts supplemental irrigation would have on both land and water in the province.

'If we can really prove our models are correct, that’s great. I don’t have that confidence.'

P.E.I. placed a moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells in 2002. The new Water Act effectively ended the moratorium, but applicants would need to comply with the province's new irrigation strategy, which the minister says is in development. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The P.E.I. Watershed Alliance says more data gathering, research and monitoring are needed in order to understand the impacts supplemental irrigation would have on both land and water in the province.

The group presented before the provincial legislative committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability Thursday, providing recommendations for how supplemental irrigation could be approached sustainably if it was to be implemented on P.E.I.

"We have to look at this as a long-term [issue]: What are our sustainable strategies to support farming as a whole? What can we do to make that viable?" alliance chair Mike Durant asked the committee.

The P.E.I. Watershed Alliance is composed of 24 watershed groups from across the province, who work to improve and protect the environmental quality of the Island's watersheds, or areas of land where water collects and then flows out to rivers, streams, lakes or the ocean.

A healthy watershed also feeds reservoirs and groundwater to ensure Islanders have clean water for drinking and washing.

The new Water Act came into effect in June, putting an end to P.E.I.'s moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells after 19 years, but the government has said no new wells will be permitted until an irrigation strategy is implemented.

Too many models, not enough data

Durant told the committee that watershed groups have been consulted about what such a strategy might look like, but there are still many concerns.

One Durant raised Thursday was about the use of modelling and future projections — as opposed to data collected on the ground in the real world.

"If we can really prove our models are correct, that's great. I don't have that confidence," he said. 

"We rely, I think, far too much on models and I really don't feel we have enough real data."

If your claims of supplemental irrigation are going to demonstrate everything you've said for benefit, I am your biggest fan.— Mike Durant, P.E.I. Watersheds Alliance

Within the presentation, the group also raised concerns about what it says is a historical "unwillingness" of P.E.I. provincial governments to prioritize the environment. 

"That is a major concern. We have a lack of sustainable long-term strategies. Too often, we see a very short-sighted focus on dealing with a current issue and not looking at a long-term solution," Durant said.

"We end up treating the problem or the symptoms and not treating the underlying problem."

Recommendations to committee

Durant also stressed the importance of binding regulations and policy over recommendations, and said that those need to be enforced and not ignored.

In the summer of 2020, five farms were given special permission to draw water from the Dunk River during a drought when river levels were already low. Officials have said this will not be allowed under the new Water Act. 

Mike Durant is the chair of the P.E.I. Watershed Alliance. (Legislative Assemble of P.E.I.)

"We have some issues and concerns with what we are doing in the long term. It's not sustainable," Durant told the committee.

When it comes to who gets to draw from wells and when, Durant made several recommendations on behalf of the alliance, including 

  • Assembling a steering committee.
  • Setting annual goals and reporting on progress toward them.
  • Not allowing existing irrigation systems to be grandfathered in.
  • Tying access to supplemental irrigation to improvements in soil organic matter, nitrate levels and yields.

"If your claims of supplemental irrigation are going to demonstrate everything you've said for benefit, I am your biggest fan," Durant said.

"But if it doesn't, you're just playing rope-a-dope," referring to a boxing strategy aimed at tiring out an opponent while blocking punches, saving your energy for a knockout punch later. 

The alliance warned that the risks of allowing supplemental irrigation to be done improperly could result in wells drying up, a decrease in stream flow and a continued or accelerated loss of soil organic matter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola MacLeod grew up on P.E.I., where she is now a multi-platform reporter and producer for CBC. Got a story? Email nicola.macleod@cbc.ca

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