Ian Petrie

There was a story going around that Wade MacLauchlan gave the environment portfolio to Robert Mitchell to keep Mitchell’s leadership ambitions at bay. The job included one of the most difficult and politically divisive issues PEI politicians have ever wrestled with-- water, and especially the moratorium on high capacity irrigation wells for agriculture. Whatever Mitchell decided there would be controversy and unhappy people. Welcome Natalie Jameson, recently sworn in as Dennis King’s environment minister, to the hot seat.

I imagine in the private sector, where Jameson recently came from, if there was critical information needed to make an important decision, and a way to get it, then she wouldn’t waste much time debating whether to proceed. Ah, but this is PEI, and irrigation represent so much more than just “water”.

For three years now, there’s been a proposal to do proper research on irrigation wells to gather evidence on what impact they have on the water table, and aquatic wildlife. This would then inform the debate on whether the moratorium is justified. Sounds reasonable, but Natalie Jameson will quickly learn that it’s hung up on who should organize and pay for it and who should carry out the research. Even if it goes ahead there will be many who will not trust the results.

The history of this tell us why. The plan first came from Irving owned Cavendish Farms. Many know that it was Robert Irving’s demand for irrigation in 2002 (18 years ago now) that led to the moratorium in the first place, and he’s made many threats over the years that without the production certainty irrigation offers Cavendish can’t continue to operate. For many, the end of the french fry business would be a step forward so, they reason, the longer the moratorium continues, the greater the chance of this happening.

I think this is a little shortsighted. Climate change has created a disturbing pattern of rain in the spring and fall, and very dry months in between, the very months when crops are growing and need moisture. Many farmers besides potato producers are recognizing the need for water if it can be safely and sustainably supplied. All the more reason to get some solid research to find out.

Cavendish Farms has been convinced to step aside, but previous Environment Minister Brad Trivers showed how difficult it is to move forward on new research when he spoke to the Guardian: “there is yet more research that needs to be done with regards to seasonal variations in P.E.I.'s water table. Trivers said he wants "unbiased, third-party research" that doesn't involve industry — research that he won't even commission or pay for out of fear it "may be political" to have any government involvement.” See the problem Minister Jameson?

The most obvious way forward would be to have UPEI’s Canada Research Chair in Watershed Ecological Integrity Mike van den Heuvel continue his research into groundwater usage. He’s been working at Charlottetown’s new well field in Miltonvale for a couple years now to study seasonal variation in water levels, and to determine when flow reductions in streams have a negative impact on aquatic species (a report out soon). He’s prepared to use the techniques developed at the Miltonvale site on irrigation wells.

There is federal money available to do this from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, but only if there’s a partner or partners also contributing. These could include agricultural organizations, watershed groups, the provincial government, but can any of these provide the clean hands, the “independence” that Trivers was talking about?

If funding can be arranged, the paperwork is already completed for four exploratory wells to carry out the research, but even this gets complicated. If it’s four new wells then the province has to end the moratorium and that just seems to be politically impossible. No minister or government wants to be the one to do this.

What about using four existing irrigation wells? Many say there will be suspicion that they were chosen in order to prove there’s no problem.

The only way forward would be for there to be several “stakeholders” financing and supporting the research, and maybe a water scientist from Upper Mongolia hired who has never heard of PEI. That might get it done.

If Mike van den Heuvel does get the job, then his ongoing interest in the negative impact of nutrients, principally nitrates, on aquatic ecosystems (algae growth, hypoxia, dead zones, etc) will no doubt be included, and this will be very important. I’d also like to get more evidence on the impact of irrigation on “ancient water”, the deeper savings account of our groundwater system that keeps saltwater at bay.

Provincial water officials say Islanders use just a small percentage of the yearly recharge (rain and snowfall). More proof of that will increase confidence in future decisions, but that’s only if new research goes ahead. Natalie Jameson, no one said this would be easy.

A final thought on former minister Brad Trivers. I always felt you could learn more about a politician from the questions they ask than the answers they give. Answers are usually calculated, and shaped by advisors. Good questions indicate a real desire to understand, and curiosity. Brad Trivers asked good questions.

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