High-capacity Wells are not an Urban versus Rural Issue

Gary Schneider, Ann Wheatley and Don Mazer, for ECOPEI – December 16, 2020

It is disturbing to hear the genuine public concern over high capacity wells being deliberately misinterpreted as “urban versus rural” and as an attack against farmers.  The Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island has been working for years to usher in a new era of water protection and conservation, and never once have we opposed farmers.  Farmers are important to the economic and social health of the province.

What we have consistently opposed is the form of industrial agriculture that continues to result in fish kills and anoxic events, reduced water levels in streams, and depleted levels of organic matter in soils.

Many excellent farmers in the province realize that a healthy environment is critical to their future existence.  To paint this issue as farmers versus non-farmers does them a disservice.  Members of the National Farmers Union have long advocated for better management practices.  Doug Campbell, PEI’s NFU District Director, was recently quoted as saying: “Why do we have no organic matter in our soil?  The reason for that is because of the way the land is being farmed.  Why is that?  Because of pressure from industrialized farming.”

We’ve also had conversations with other farmers who are very concerned about the direction of potato farming and the influence of the Irving family, which is where the push for high-capacity wells is coming from.  Clearly, not all farmers want or could afford high-capacity wells.  But their voices are seldom heard.

In 2013, the PEI Potato Board & Cavendish Farms asked the PEI government to lift a longstanding moratorium on high capacity wells in the province.  Indirectly, this led to the development of a new Water Act.  During the public process to develop the Act, there were 57 presentations, along with written submissions from a diverse range of groups and individuals, and from industry. The vast majority of these presentations wanted the moratorium on high capacity wells to kept in place. This was also the recommendation in the Environmental Advisory Committee report on the meetings.

Unfortunately, the Water Act, passed in 2017 has yet to be proclaimed, and the revised regulations still have not been released for public comment.  During this time, there have been a number of new holding ponds developed that would not be permitted under the draft regulations.  We need to enact the Water Act, to maintain the high capacity wells moratorium, and prohibit holding ponds.  

But we also need to find a way out of the unsustainable cycle we’re in. Climate change will likely bring hotter and drier summers. The need for irrigating potatoes will be greatest when water is less and less available, and when the need for water to maintain ecosystem health is the greatest. At the same time that more water is needed for agriculture, we should be taking less.  More high capacity wells will only enable this increasingly unsustainable cycle. We need to find ways of doing agriculture differently.

Considering water as a common good and a public trust requires all of us to conserve and protect it.  Water should not be seen as a resource, simply to be extracted and exploited, but as an essential part of living ecosystems that support all life.  It is imperative that respect for protecting fresh water be at the forefront of decision making when it comes to water extraction. PEI is one of only a small number of places entirely dependent upon groundwater. This makes PEI unique and also vulnerable to any disturbance in the ecosystem.

And clearly, all water use is not equal. Humans need clean drinking water and that should be our first priority. Ecosystem health should always be a priority since it must be preserved in part to provide the life-giving essence mentioned above. Domestic use and emergency use for fire-fighting are next. Agriculture and Industry are generally far down the priority list for access to water.

Islanders are once again at a crossroads. We can be ever more committed to an industrial model of agriculture, with more water usage, larger fields, less and less soil organic matter, shrinking windbreaks, continuing fish kills and anoxic conditions, fewer farmers on larger acreages, and a small number of jobs created per acre.

Or we can look at truly becoming the Garden of the Gulf, with excellent drinking water, food security, and tremendous employment opportunities (as our organic growers and innovative small and large farmers have demonstrated throughout the pandemic). All Islanders would live in a healthy environment that continued to improve, and we would become a haven for tourists looking for a beautiful, safe and sustainable place to visit.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to say we are Canada’s Food Island without having dead fish in the water? And, especially in an era of escalating climate change, it is good for all of us to remember that no one, and nothing, lives without clean water.

Gary Schneider, Ann Wheatley and Don Mazer, for the Environmental Coalition of PEI

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