With the latest holding pond being built in the province acting as a backdrop, members of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water issued a call for an interim moratorium on building such structures until the regulations for the Water Act are in place.
Catherine O'Brien, who chairs the coalition that includes the National Farmers Union, stressed the two wells and the holding pond being constructed by potato producers Austin Roberts and Andrew Lawless in Shamrock were "completely legal." Currently, there are no regulations governing the drilling of low capacity wells and no permits are required. Instead there are only suggested guidelines for those drilling a well to follow.
The coalition maintains such wells are a way to circumvent the moratorium on high capacity wells that has been in place since 2002 and will continue under the Water Act. Speaker after speaker quoted former environment minister Brad Trivers, who indicated last year when the Water Act was introduced, "Under the new regulations when low capacity wells are used together to pump the same volume as a high capacity well, they will be treated as high capacity well and all regulations for high capacity wells will apply." The holding pond in Shamrock will have a capacity of seven million gallons.
In a news release, the owners of the holding pond said there are two regular low-flow wells attached to the project. Roberts and Lawless indicated "the goal of this project is to direct rain and runoff to flow over the land and run into the pond over the year so it may be used for irrigation of our cropland during the few weeks of the year when rainfall is insufficient."
The producers said they consulted engineers and all of the water will be naturally filtered and returned to the environment in a controlled manner. They noted if the holding pond had been in place when Post Tropical Storm Dorian struck last September, it would have captured enough water to fill half the pond.
However, O'Brien maintains the holding pond violates the spirit and intent of the Water Act. The coalition has written Premier Dennis King and Environment, Water and Climate Change Minister Natalie Jameson to impose the temporary moratorium saying "what we are requesting is exactly what minister Trivers and your government intended namely that additional measures are taken to protect our water while the consultation on water withdrawal regulations take place."
While he backs the call for the temporary moratorium, the district director of the National Farmers Union said the long term solution to the problem is to improve soil organic matter. Campbell pointed to a recent study by the National Research Council which indicates a one per cent improvement in soil organic matter allows the soil to retain an extra 23,000 gallons of water.
Meanwhile, the executive director of the PEI Federation of Agriculture lent his support to the project. Robert Godfrey called Roberts and Lawless "responsible farmers" who were acting in an environmentally sustainable manner and following all the regulations. He called it "shameful" the NFU was attacking members of the farming community in this way.
Summerside-Wilmot MLA Lynne Lund questioned Jameson on the possibility of an interim moratorium in the legislature. Jameson said staff from her department had been in contact with
the well driller and "We provided direction to ensure that there is no impact on neighbouring wells, or on stream levels."
The minister reminded Lund irrigation ponds and associated low capacity wells are not currently regulated, although they will be under the regulations now being developed for the Water Act. The opposition MLA did some reminding of her own, telling Jameson "your party did get elected on a platform that would put a continued moratorium on high capacity wells."
Lund went on to say "It’s no secret that the holding ponds like we’re talking about are just a way of circumventing these regulations as they exist currently, and the PEI Water Act will prohibit these ponds moving forward. It seems odd, then, that this government appears to be fine with the exact sort of irresponsible water withdrawal that this new legislation will stop. "
The minister explained the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability is currently collecting feedback on the regulations, noting the process has been slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Lund asked directly about the possibility of an interim moratorium, the minister said she was not prepared to act until the Standing Committee tabled its report saying "I know my staff is very engaged in this process and have been keeping me up to speed so I’m looking forward to learning more about the specific location and as we go forward, I’m looking forward to seeing the presentations roll out to the committee."
She told Lund "In terms of my commitment to establishing a moratorium, I’m certainly willing to have a conversation with you and I welcome any feedback and my department is very much available to answer any questions you may have. "