Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
The economy of Prince Edward Island, in Canada’s east coast maritime provinces, is dependent to a large degree on its primary sector. Fishing, aquaculture, and agriculture produce the majority of the province’s gross domestic product. The largest agricultural sector is potato growing.
The potatoes grown are both table supply and supply for processing into end products such as potato chips and French fries. Irrigation is already used in the potato industries, and is considered ‘supplemental’, as the island receives a regular supply of rainfall. Although it is variable across the Island, average precipitation is 1100 millimetres per year. Irrigation is not used every season, and when it is, it is only at certain critical times of the potato growing cycle. Sometimes this is necessary to ensure that the potatoes grown are of a suitable size, shape, and quality for the processing companies. In many years, only 50 millimetres of irrigation is applied in a season.
Irrigation water is sourced primarily from groundwater, although there is also some surface water abstraction.
Prince Edward Island is entirely reliant on groundwater for its drinking water. The deepest drinking water wells are at a depth of around 800 metres, but the most productive wells are less than 200 metres in depth. Most private bores for drinking water extend to a depth of around 60 metres. Although the Island abstracts a fairly high volume of groundwater for irrigation, drinking water, aquaculture, and food processing, its aquifer levels are maintained through extremely high recharge rates. Thirty four per cent of precipitation goes directly to groundwater recharge.
In 2002, in order to limit the amount of groundwater which can be abstracted, the Provincial government paced a moratorium on new groundwater abstraction for irrigation purposes.
In order to ensure that there is adequate water supply for irrigation during the critical growth phases, there have been requests to allow for further abstraction of groundwater from deep groundwater sources, using ‘high capacity’ wells which draw water at a rate of up to 50 litres per second. These requests have been led by a producing and processing company, Cavendish Farms who have requested that the government lift the moratorium.
The Ministry for the Environment’s abstraction policy which calculated the amount of water that can be withdrawn was previously related to the amount of recharge. In 2013, in response to some community concerns around the effects of increased abstraction should the moratorium be lifted, a new policy was developed which linked the amount of water available for abstraction to the effects of abstraction on connected surface water stream flows. However, this new policy has not alleviated the community concerns, and many on both sides of the debate are unconvinced as to the accuracy of the scientific modelling of the aquifers which has been undertaken.
It should be noted that irrigation for agricultural purposes only accounts for one percent of the Island’s groundwater abstraction, with the same amount of water being abstracted for the watering of golf courses, thirty percent used for industry and food processing, and sixty percent used for residential purposes. No moratorium applies to abstraction for any of these other water uses, and are still granted.
A complicating factor is that nitrate levels in the Island’s groundwater is increasing. A government appointed commission to examine the issues of nitrates made a series of recommendations to the government in 2009 as to how nitrate rates should be reduced. There have been some improvements in farming practices in recent years, due to programmes such as the Alternative Land Use Services programme, which provides financial incentives to farmers to undertake actions above and beyond basic compliance, in consideration for the provision ecological goods and services. This programme is cost-shared between the Federal and Provincial governments.
The government has also supported the development of Community Watershed Planning Groups, to undertake stream enhancement projects across eighty per cent of the Island’s 255 watersheds.
Despite these good processes, water quality issues remain concerning, with anoxic events occurring frequently in the Island’s estuaries, and fish kills occurring due to pesticide contamination.
In order to address all of these thorny issues, the Provincial government has announced that it intends to legislate in the form of a new Water Act. Ostensibly, the policy direction and content of the Act has not yet been determined, rather it is intended that the Act will reflect the will of the community. A third party is to be engaged to lead an extensive process of community consultation, the outcomes of which will inform the content of the legislation. As well as setting new rules around abstraction, the Act could include regulations around nutrient management to control nitrates entering ground and surface water.
The government is attempting to bridge the gap between public opinion on the one hand, and the need to support economic development through support for the Island’s largest employer.