A non-binding motion calling for an interim moratorium on holding ponds has passed through the legislature by a 15-10 margin.
Summerside-Wilmot MLA Lynne Lund introduced the motion after construction of holding pond in Shamrock by producers Austin Roberts and Andrew Lawless. The Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability is currently studying the issue.
While the motion was not a whipped vote (meaning members of each party voted the same way), all eight Green Party MLA's voted in support of motion and all six Liberal MLA opposed it. The governing Progressive Conservatives were split on the issue with Finance Minister Darlene Compton, Health Minister James Aylward, Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy Minister Steve Myers, Environment, Water and Climate Change Natalie Jameson, Economic Development, Tourism and Culture Minister Matthew MacKay, Education Minister Brad Trivers, and Government House Leader Sidney MacEwen supporting the motion.
Meanwhile, Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson, Fisheries and Communities Minister Jamie Fox, Social Development and Housing Minister Ernie Hudson and Montague-Kilmuir MLA Cory Deagle opposed the motion. Premier Dennis King was not in legislature for the vote as he was involved in a conference call with his fellow premiers and Speaker Colin LaVie does not vote unless there is a tie.
During debate on the motion, Lund noted there has been significant concern from many Islanders about multiple wells being drilled and connected to a holding pond that can draw more than 345 cubic metres of water per day, which is the defination of a high capacity well.
She noted the draft regulations for the Water Act forbid multiple low capacity wells from being joined together to function as a high capacity well. Lund added "As we wait for the Water Act to be proclaimed, we see new construction of holding ponds that act like high-capacity wells. And even once we have the Water Act in effect, these holding ponds will be given a full five years before they even have to be compliant with the regulations. That’s a gap in protection and it’s a gap that a minister of environment who wants to make water a priority can address."
Mermaid-Stratford MLA and opposition Agriculture and Land Critic Michele Beaton made it clear she had no problem with what she called "sustainably designed" holding ponds designed to capture surface runoff that can later be used for irrigation. She added "this motion speaks specifically to the construction of holding ponds that are not sustainably designed: ones that threaten the health of our watersheds and the integrity of our aquifer."
Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson said he feels the motion unfairly singles out farmers. He noted "you can water your golf course. We can all go and wash our car after this Legislature. You can build a 400-home subdivision, but you can’t water your food."
The minister maintains farmers have a good record when it comes to water use, noting the province uses less than 2% of their annual recharge with agriculture using just two per cent of that two per cent. Thompson added "Farmers want to farm in a sustainable manner. They don’t want to waste water. They want to be able to water their crops. Irrigation is part of modern agriculture except here on PEI, where you can measure the water to the ounce that you’re putting on your food."
Despite indicating in the legislature on several occasions she wanted to wait until the legislature committee filed its report, Environment, Water and Climate Change Minister Natalie Jameson spoke in support of the motion. She noted she recently had an "excellent discussion" with the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water and has directed her department to "explore what is possible. Irrigation ponds and the low-capacity wells that fill them are not currently regulated; however, my department is actively monitoring their development."
O’Leary-Inverness MLA and Liberal Agriculture Critic Robert Henderson opposed the motion, saying " I certainly find it very concerning that we’re discussing this particular issue in probably the driest June that I can ever recall."
The former agriculture minister said he was concerned the motion will "restrict and remove the tools that farmers have to try to be profitable in this province. I think I should remind the members of this House that this province is based on an agricultural foundation."
He agreed with the agriculture minister the motion singled out farmers, saying it is totally unrealistic to expect producers to keep growing world-class food while having absolutely no access to water resources during the summer months.
"I’ve got a couple of the holding ponds in my own district. These holding ponds aren’t just somebody that went in and did a little bit of digging of a hole and a couple of wells; they’re engineered by engineers, they figure out the best way to deal with the soil, the way that the land is sloped, where the best location is to put these ponds," he said. "This is something that’s thought out, it’s not just slapped together and away you go."