Ian Petrie

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It was quite the contrast.

In early July, the Saskatchewan government announced it would spend $4 billion over the next decade to double the amount of irrigated farmland in the province. Canals will be constructed to move water from Lake Diefenbaker to irrigate up to 500,000 acres of land.

At the same time, the PEI legislature adopted a motion for a moratorium on the construction of new irrigation ponds. This is coupled with an 18 year moratorium on new high capacity irrigation wells, something that’s now fixed in stone. While Saskatchewan claims to be preparing for the challenges of climate change, PEI has been taking a very thoughtful approach to water use policy that I fully support. We can’t get this wrong.

PEI is deep into the “precautionary principle” when it comes to water use in agriculture. Successive governments have promised first rate, independent research to see if these moratoriums are necessary, but the politics and perception of this issue appear just too difficult for any government to take on.

Farmers concerned with yearly periods of drought during the growing season, and the threat of increased weather uncertainty from climate change, have accepted that new irrigation wells are a non-starter, so much more expensive holding ponds have been a fallback. There have been 29 ponds built, most in the last five years, and two over the last 10 months.

The previous Liberal government did establish a set of “requirements” to build these ponds and supply them with water, promising these would be put into regulations once the Water Act passed. Only one shallow, domestic sized well could be used. Many farmers building ponds ignored this requirement, allowing opponents of irrigation to successfully argue that the ponds are simply a workaround to the deep well moratorium.

I’ve written before that these additional wells should not be grandfathered in when the Water Act becomes law. Yes there will be legal challenges. Let the lawyers fight it out, and do the long promised research to see if these additional wells can be used without harm, but don’t OK them before that. Don’t leave any wiggle room for farmers to think that they can build ponds with multiple wells legally before the Water Act is proclaimed. That’s better than a non-binding moratorium.

That’s why I found it so ironic (and frustrating really) that the new pond in Shamrock was the backdrop for the latest public demonstration against holding ponds. I think it’s the kind of project people should support. Most of the ponds in East Prince have been built by large highly capitalized operations like Vanco and Indian River Farms. This one was constructed by R & L Farms, a joint venture owned by Andrew Lawless and Austin Roberts, two younger farmers who have been committed for years to soil conservation projects, ditching the moldboard plow for high residue tillage equipment, minimizing fertilizer use, proper rotations and research and on farm practices promoting increased soil organic matter and soil health.

Yes they grow potatoes, which for some would be all they need to know before passing judgment, but if we can accept that potato production isn’t going to vanish overnight then these two farmers and a dozen other young farm families that are part of a group called the East Prince Agri-Environment Association are operations we should support.

They’re curious, they’re educated, they want to know the best way to do things. They’ve watched their parents struggle through tough years and wrenching changes as the industry moved from profitable seed, to marginal process potato production. Part of what they’ve learned is that proper rotations, new soil conservation equipment, fall cover crops and so on all cost money. If this pond can supply water for two or three weeks a year and make their crop more productive and profitable, then these other practices become sustainable.

What I especially like about this project is that it’s located in an area that naturally collects runoff from hundreds of acres around it using grassed waterways and culverts. It is pumping two shallow, low volume, domestic wells right now, but the hope is just one will be needed in the years ahead after the winter and spring run-off is collected.

I can’t speak to the construction or location of other ponds, but I thought this one should be a model: collect water when it’s naturally available, use the water when it’s hard to come by, and don’t threaten groundwater resources.

Saskatchewan is obviously going all in with its ambitious irrigation plans and it will take a couple of decades to know if the concern about climate change justifies the cost and environmental impact of this policy. PEI, on the other hand, is still struggling to find a way forward. Preventing the construction of irrigation ponds, maintaining the moratorium on drilling deep water wells (only for farmers mind you, residents of Charlottetown and Summerside both enjoying new well fields) may feel like pushback and progress for some.

I’ll continue to pay more attention to land use and attitude, the willingness of farmers to work with local watershed groups and researchers looking for better rotation crops, and ways to prevent erosion and fish kills, build soil health. What I haven’t seen from Andrew Lawless and Austin Roberts and others in their group is that limiting stubbornness that they know better. It’s something we could all learn from.

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(1) comment

ALinda A

was good to see Ian's face .. I was wondering if he was stil around and ok ..

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