I didn't make a lot of friends with this one:
The Water Wheel Keeps Spinning
It was hard to think that the moratorium on high-capacity wells for farmers could get any more confusing (there are other words), but it has. In the interest of fairness a legislative committee has recommended that no rural business be allowed a new well until research has been completed to better understand the groundwater resource and how to manage it properly. Other than pushing new businesses to towns and cities with central water systems (from high-capacity wells) this is exactly where we were two years ago when a research project was first proposed.
Politicians have so much trouble with this because the moratorium has become a litmus test for the environmental credibility of political parties. Get it wrong and the stigma of caring more about Americans eating french fries than protecting precious water resources will stick for several elections. But now there’s a new challenge: get it wrong and risk the viability of farms throughout the province because of continuous summer droughts from climate change.
The urgency for farmers is pretty obvious, but we have to understand that for many others the moratorium is a bargaining chip, the one bit of control for those opposed to potato production. People concerned with the heavy use of pesticides, nitrate risk to streams and groundwater, soil erosion, fish kills and so on. They worry that take the moratorium off the table, and the industry will be free to do whatever it wants, including putting the province’s water resources at risk. It represents a total breakdown of trust.
There were times during the wild-west growth in potato production during the 1990’s that I shared these concerns, but several things have happened since that give me confidence that potato production is more responsible and sustainable now, and getting more so each year.
The pesticides being used are safer (not safe) and have evolved from the legacy WW2 nerve agents popular back then. The specialized sprayers many farmers use now are much more precise, and research at UPEI and elsewhere on “precision agriculture” will do even more to make sure the minimum amount of pesticide and fertilizer is used and only go where it’s needed.
There’s an even bigger hammer wielded on potato growers producing for the french fry markets. Fast food giants like McDonalds are starting to demand proof that farming practices are minimizing harm to the environment, and there’s no question that Cavendish Farms insists that its growers must not be the cause of fish kills. It just does not want the bad publicity.
Then there’s the growing relationship between farmers and local watershed groups, the living lab research projects on commercial farms looking at new rotation mixes and use of cover crops in the fall. All are designed to lessen the risk of damaging the natural resources we all depend on.
It’s still “show me” time for so many people, but driving good and bad farmers out of business IF water could be used safely and responsibly is simply unreasonable.
Here’s the thing. The research is needed even if the moratorium never ends. There are 308 high-capacity wells already in use in the province, 36 on farms established before the moratorium, and hundreds more used by cities, towns, food processors, golf courses and so on. We need ways to confidently judge when all these current users are taking too much water and have to stop. This research will help us get that.
There are 2 things that matter in all of this for me. We can’t let irrigation water and fertilizer push production on deteriorating soils. I think establishing a minimum soil organic matter level for a permit is one way to avoid this, but this has to be implemented fairly. Many will want a fixed number (3% and higher say) but what about farmers who have genuinely started the long road back to improving soils, but haven’t hit that number yet? Improved productivity would help to financially support the soil building we want to encourage. Can we get legal commitments on proper crop rotations as part of the irrigation permitting? Hey, maybe just enforce the 3 year rotation regulations, and soil organic matter testing and benchmarks the Roundtable proposed 25 years ago.
The other issue is preventing saltwater intrusion into aquifers. This will require intelligent placing of wells away from the coast.
The controversy over increased irrigation is dragging along a lot of baggage, and we have to be willing to let some it go. Yes it began 19 years ago with Robert Irving wanting to ensure the supply of potatoes to compete in a ruthless commodity french fry market that pits PEI against farmers and processors in western North America with virtually no environmental regulations, land ownership restrictions, and a long history of irrigation use . But now many other farmers, including certified organic producers, are saying irrigation is necessary to maintain food production. Islanders need to know if it can be done sustainably and regulated properly. Research will tell us that. Let’s use some common sense, please.