Ending the moratorium: Credible science and comprehensive data or empty rhetoric and baseless reassurances?

Don Mazer and Boyd Allen

Part l.

The Water Act Process: From exemplary public consultation to industry led policy

It took 7 years, but now Prince Edward Island finally proclaimed a Water Act. There are certainly reasons to celebrate this. The Act contains guiding values that recognize water as a common good and a public trust. There is acknowledgment of the precautionary principle and the need to preserve water for future generations.   Yet, how much the Act will help to remedy the poor track record of the Government and its departments in protecting PEI’s waters remains to be seen.

The impetus for the development of the Water Act began at Legislative Standing Committee meetings in 2014. The potato processing industry was pressuring government to lift the moratorium on high capacity wells for agriculture, and many citizens and groups opposed this.

It is important to appreciate that the development of the Water Act reflected an exemplary process of public consultation, because it stands in such sharp contrast to the current approach of Minister Myers and the King government. This Water Act consultation period was a time when there was meaningful collaboration between government and citizens, when all Islanders had a chance to express their ideas, and when there were many opportunities for public input. Government was receptive to requests for transparent processes, and was flexible in meeting the needs of the public.  Citizens and groups responded with enthusiasm and interest and a strong commitment to this process. The result was a series of excellent, thoughtful and well researched presentations by groups and individuals at public meetings across PEI. Government seemed to actually welcome and value public input into the development of policy.  The Environmental Advisory Council report was an accurate reflection of these presentations, and included the strong opposition from a large majority of presenters to ending the moratorium on High Capacity wells for agriculture.

After being reviewed and debated clause by clause, The Water Act was passed by the provincial legislature in December, 2017.  It was the ground breaking product of participatory democracy and a step toward consensus based governance.

But since that time, we have had a change in government and four Environment Ministers, each reflecting the biases current in their Caucus and the Premier’s Office. The Water Act process has been transformed through each of these changes and has fallen on and off the priority list. The robust process of public consultation on the Act was replaced by a consultant driven “dot democracy” method for the regulations, with limited opportunities for people to directly express their ideas. The current minister is unresponsive to requests for meetings.

Trust has eroded in Government’s ability to protect our water, to listen to and collaborate with citizens and to resist corporate influence.  Anoxic conditions, high nitrate levels and fishkills continue to seriously impact P.E.I.’s waterways. Kilometres of Winter River stream beds continue to go dry each summer. The Government even violated its own regulations to permit a group of potato producers to extract water from the Dunk River in 2020 though the flow levels were below legal limits. In lieu of transparency, Government made this possible through closed door meetings and subsequent ministerial orders.

We have moved from a textbook template of public engagement and consensus based governance to a government led by industry, doing whatever if feels appropriate to achieve its short term goals. Virtually all lines of communication have been ignored. Portals for public engagement have been effectively blocked. The multiparty Standing Committee that Dennis King celebrated as a model of collaboration and transparency, is now presented by his Minister as a target of derision, their recommendations easily disregarded. Minister Myers’ unfettered boosterism of the potato processing industry appears to be government policy and has not been discouraged by his leader or his party. 
 

Part II.  A Water Conservation Strategy or an Irrigation Strategy?

As recognized by all parties in the Water Act process, Minister Steven Myers, and the King government have repeatedly emphasized that decisions about water use will always be based on careful scientific considerations, sound data and sustaining the water source for future generations. However, the decision to end the moratorium on high capacity wells for agriculture at this point reflects none of these values.  Communications from government about this decision offer us empty rhetoric and baseless reassurances, telling us how nonexistent policies and plans will protect our water.

We now hear little about the comprehensive four year study proposed by UPEI’s Dr. Michael van den Heuvel intended to provide specific data about the impact of high capacity  wells on watersheds. While there were concerns raised by environmental groups on the lack of details of this study, it was heavily promoted by industry groups and government as a prerequisite to lifting the moratorium. In Minister Myers’ latest announcement, there is no mention made of this study or anything to replace it for that matter.  Minister Myers assures us that we have had all the information that we needed for 19 years to end this “silly moratorium”. The implication is that no new data is needed to fundamentally change these water extraction regulations. Perhaps the four year delay and the inability to control the resulting conclusions limited their enthusiasm.

Communications from government about this decision offer us reassurances that the protection of our water is the root of these changes. Unfortunately this is based on an undeveloped irrigation strategy and an undetermined drought contingency plans.  These two ideas are vital to preventing unsustainable water extraction. Shouldn’t they be in place before all the applications for new HC wells start flowing in?  Shouldn’t there be public consultation about their development?

Government chose to lift the moratorium in response to the claim that it discriminated against agriculture.  But why continue to single out agriculture? Government should use this opportunity to develop a broader water conservation strategy, that places irrigation for farming in the context of all the needs for water that other industries and interests, citizens and ecosystems have.

It is encouraging to hear support at a recent Standing Committee meeting for developing systems of water governance that include a diverse range of interests and stakeholders. The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water proposed such models of Community Based Water Governance in two submissions to the Environmental Advisory Committee during the Water Act process, and look forward to contributing to this discussion.

Government asks us to trust their good intentions, to trust their ability to monitor the well being of all waterways, to trust the expertise in their department. They ask Islanders to accept their reassurance without providing supporting data or any practical template of what is required to administer these changes in regulations or monitor their impact. They expect us to accept their continuous message that there is plentiful and abundant groundwater. They ask for all this public trust in the context of the many instances where water and wildlife health have been jeopardized under their watch.

Despite this, Minister Myers continues to reassure us that there will be meaningful public consultation. There is just no indication of what form this will take. Given his contemptuous response to any earlier recommendations from the Standing Committee which he disagreed with, how impactful this consultation will be is certainly in doubt.

The decision to end the moratorium seems to have been the government’s preferred outcome all along. 

Don Mazer and Boyd Allen are on the board of the Citizens’ Alliance of PEI, a member organization of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water

PEI’s Water Act, What’s Missing?

The fact that the Water Act will finally come into effect this week should be a source of celebration in Prince Edward Island. The Act contains many positive features, and in many ways reflects the values expressed by the Islanders who have over the past seven years, taken time to participate in public consultations and comment on the Act and its accompanying regulations.

But Minister Myer’s announcement on June 10 has dampened enthusiasm for the long-awaited legislation. Once again, the Minister has indicated just how easily this government responds to the powerful voices of industry and how little they hear or care about the voices of concerned Islanders who have consistently said “no” to lifting the moratorium on high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation. Public support for maintaining the moratorium is based on the need to protect this Island’s groundwater, for our health and the health of future generations. And because Prince Edward Island’s ecosystems, already under threat in so many ways, depend on preservation of groundwater.

As the Coalition wrote in an April opinion piece in the Guardian, “trust in government’s ability to protect our water, to resist corporate influence and to listen to citizens has eroded particularly in the 3 ½ years since the Water Act was passed. Fishkills, anoxic conditions, and high nitrate levels continue in our waters.  Last summer, the government violated its own regulations by permitting five farmers to extract water from the Dunk River, when water levels were dangerously low.”

We are particularly disappointed that the moratorium is going to be lifted on the basis that licensing of high-capacity wells will be done according to rules that are as yet, non-existent. 

The idea that high-capacity wells will be permitted, provided they are constructed in accordance with an irrigation strategy may sound good, until one realizes that actually, there is no irrigation strategy.

Will all water users be at the table to determine an acceptable strategy? After all, we all have a stake in determining how water is allocated in this province for both consumptive and non-consumptive uses. And even if that strategy is to emerge and is compatible with the new Act and its regulations, the wells will not be subject to metering nor the strict limitations on water usage recommended by the PEI Legislature’s Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability, leaving us all to wonder about the pledge by this Government to the protection of Prince Edward Island waters and the gathering of scientific data to assess the effects of high-capacity wells.

The Act will also require farmers seeking well permits to submit a drought contingency plan, or a plan to reduce water use during extreme drought conditions, to the province. But there’s been no discussion of what should be included in such a plan.

This is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse and in this case the cart itself seems to be missing a competent driver.

Ann Wheatley and Marie-Ann Bowden for the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water

Published in the Charlottetown Guardian, June 17, 2021

Cavendish Farms Research Proposal Would Require 3 New High Capacity Wells

cavendish-farms-3077198_large

And here’s the full proposal.

In November of 2018, Robert Irving appeared before the Standing Committee on Communities, Land and the Environment. He had been asked to speak about his corporation’s land holdings but he really never did get around to that. There were other things on his mind. Once again he demanded that the moratorium on high capacity wells be lifted, to allow for a research project involving 3 watershed groups and UPEI and government researchers. Read the full research proposal here. At the same meeting he asked for land limits under the Lands Protection Act to be effectively doubled.

Here’s what Marie Ann Bowden from the Coalition said in a Letter to the Editor, after the Charlottetown Guardian published an editorial in support of Irving’s project idea:

EDITOR:

The Guardian editorial of December 5, “A sensible suggestion,” clearly supports the proclaimed commitment to environmental sustainability expressed by Cavendish Farms. While I salute the editor’s optimism, it raises a few questions:

The province has indicated that the moratorium on high capacity wells for agriculture will remain in place at least until 2021, when the research of Dr. Mike Van den Heuval and the Canadian Rivers Institute is completed. No new high capacity wells should be considered or permitted until that time.

If this proposal were to be accepted, and the water drawn from these wells used to irrigate agricultural lands, would this simply be a happy byproduct of “determining the impacts of agricultural irrigation on the water table”? And if Island water sources are shown to be “at risk” as a result, how would those negative impacts be addressed?

The editor states, “The Irvings are successful because they make sound, and sometimes hard, business decisions.” So when exactly does a “pilot” project undertaken in the name of sustainability become a hard business decision to irrigate more agricultural lands, and circumvent a moratorium on deep water wells endorsed by Islanders?

Let’s call “a spade, a spade” or in this case ” a spud, a spud.” The proposal requires violating the moratorium. The “sensible suggestion” is that government should simply reject it on that basis alone – no matter who is making the application.

Marie Ann Bowden,
Charlottetown

 

Can you see a pattern?

Sometimes charts help you see patterns.

Repeating History

event Plan B High Capacity Wells
Department and Minister responsible Transportation, Vessey Environment, Sherry
Minister punts to Stantec consulting PEI Potato Board
which writes, and then retracts, *approval* of Plan B Says it’s not their job, but is part of team
with Cavendish Farms hiring former MLAs/Premier’s staff as consultants
and that results in dozens and dozens of letters
from concerned, articulate
Islanders
dozens and dozens of letters
from concerned, articulate Islanders
Minister’s spokesperson duties shifted to Steven Yeo, chief engineer Bruce Raymond, manager of watershed planning
who says Plan B is needed for safety.
It will meet or exceed TAC Standards
There is capacity for “dozens and dozens
and dozens of wells.”

Quote from Minister

George Webster, Agriculture Minister, regarding high capacity wells: “We need much more consultation with the public so they are informed.”

Once again, Consultation results in the populace being Educated.

———-

But here is the quote we need:
“Fumigation of soil, more high capacity wells, soil erosion, nitrates in ground and surface water, fish kills (better to call them river kills) and multiple, annu al anoxic events in our waterways across PEI. We have tied it all together so many times and brought it to our politicians, planners, farmers, industries, road builders and more. We will continue to do so, but we need to keep improving the awareness of the connections. Our wildlife, natural areas and our own health depend on us not making this situation worse. Do what you can to prevent future damage.”
 – Jackie Waddell, Island Nature Trust