Officials from the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action offered a snapshot of the challenges in developing a sustainable irrigation strategy during an appearance before the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environment Sustainability.
Bruce Raymond, who is the manager of water and air monitoring for the department, examined the watershed area for the Dunk River (which encompasses 167 square kilometres). He noted "with our criteria that’s in the Water Withdrawal Regulations, the water that’s available is some 50,000 cubic metres a day. What we are expecting that we may move to is allowing ourselves to permit up to 90% of that."
He explained there are 45,000 cubic metres a day available in the watershed during the summer and approximately 26 square kilometres of potato land in the watershed area. He said if all of that land were irrigated, it would take 22,000 cubic metres a day for a water demand of two inches a year, four inches would take 44,000 cubic metres; and five inches 56,000 cubic metres.
"Most irrigators, we find, tend to use between three and five inches of water," he explained. "As it happens, they tell us that a lot of fields aren’t necessarily suitable for irrigation, so they wouldn’t ever attempt or want to irrigate all of the acreage. And then, of course, it’s also not possible under some irrigation systems to actually irrigate the entire field. There are corners and whatnot that they can’t reach."
He noted the Water Withdrawal Regulations will be amended to allow for new high capacity irrigation wells provided they’re following an irrigation strategy. Raymond explained " The way that this is worded is that the irrigation strategy has to be in place before any permits would be issued. So, the moratorium is not strictly gone. It would only be gone in effect if an irrigation strategy was developed and approved."
The manager explained a drought contingency plan is also being developed at the suggestion of the committee. He said extreme drought conditions, as defined by Agriculture and Agri Food Canada, might occur every 20 years.
A restriction on repurposing existing wells to agricultural irrigation has been removed but any repurposing would require the same permits as an agriculture irrigation well. Raymond noted permits will reflect the strategy of the particular watershed they are attached to and would be different on a farm to farm basis.
"Farms are different sizes, they would be utilizing water in different ways, so again, we’re imagining this customization as you take the overarching framework and dial it down into the details on a farm-by-farm basis," said the department manager.
However, he said the irrigation strategy will have some common principles namely that it would reflect responsible usage, that it would show and demand the following of allocated limits, that there would be fair access to producers that are working within a watershed, that there would be components that address soil health and improve soil health, and that there would be drought contingency plans that would be brought to bear when the summer happens to be particularly dry.
Deputy Minister Brad Colwill told the committee one of the main questions to be worked on was a procedure for issuing new permits. He noted a different method would have to be developed for watersheds that currently have now agriculture irrigation as opposed those at the 50%-plus allocation rate. He noted that rate would include all uses not just agriculture.
"Perhaps the first come-first served model that we use now could remain for those watersheds that are not quite at that level of allocation where this extra element needs to happen," he said.
Colwill said the department is examining three options including a cooperative for an entire watershed or group of watersheds that would determine how to distribute water among its members. Another option is the development of a water authority and he admitted that is the route the department is currently leaning towards since it allows input from non-irrigating stakeholders. The third option would be to continue with the first come-first served option with the requirement to renew permits every five years.
"The bar is set for all water use, it’s based on what’s in the stream flow, so that’s kind of a given and that’s in the act, or the regulations now," said George Somers, who is the department's manager of drinking water and wastewater. "Agriculture would be considered on the same level as any other industrial use."
In answer to a question from committee member Ole Hammarlund, Colwill explained the moratorium is actually still in effect and no supplemental irrigation permits will be issued until the irrigation strategy is in place.
As for how much water can be withdrawn, Somers explained, "You can’t reduce stream flow during the dry period of the summer by more than 35%, so if you had 100 cubic meters in a stream, normally you couldn’t draw it down more than to less than 65 cubic metres during July and August, or whatever the dates are. Something like that."
Hammarlund also wanted to know if water allocation would be based on acreage. Raymond replied "It certainly seems to make some sense that if you have a large acreage, that you would get a larger permit than somebody who has a smaller acreage. That is an important question that requires some thought, for sure."
Colwill told Opposition Leader Peter Bevan Baker the department is hoping to have a discussion document on the irrigation strategy ready by this fall. Raymond said the determination of drought would be made on an area by area basis.
In response to a question from Tignish-PalmerRoad MLA Hal Perry, Colwill said "We have many years of data that’s helped inform – say, that 35% threshold. That is absolutely science informed. That’s been there. Somers added the department has been collecting data based on allocations for other users of deep water wells for decades.