On Nov. 19, 2014 former MLA Paula Biggar stood up in the P.E.I. Legislature to deliver two key recommendations from the standing committee on agriculture, environment, energy and forestry, of which she was chair.
Back in 2014, the legislature was still sitting in Province House. The Liberals were in power under leader Robert Ghiz.
The committee had recently concluded an extraordinary series of emotionally-charged public meetings on whether to end the province's long-standing moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells, implemented in 2002.
The committee's recommendation: the moratorium should stay in place for the time being, and the province should seek peer-reviewed scientific research on which to base an eventual decision.
Another recommendation, which the committee had first delivered in the spring of 2014: P.E.I. should develop a water act, a single, overarching piece of legislation to manage and safeguard the province's water supply.
Six years and two premiers later, the Water Act still has not been brought into effect, though the legislation itself was passed in 2017.
Question over irrigation wells remains
Before the law can be enacted, the province has to finalize regulations governing water extraction — including from high-capacity wells.
Since January, the Department of Environment, Water and Climate Change has been working on a second draft of the regulations, following public consultations during the summer of 2019. Consultations on the Water Act itself took place in 2015 and again in 2017.
Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Change Natalie Jameson said her department is "hoping to get a second draft" of the regulations ready "shortly" to present to the province's standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability.
If there are no further changes required in the regulations, a 90-day period would begin "before the act can actually be proclaimed," Jameson said.
I think the public as much as anything wants, sort of, scientifically independent, as much as possible, answers on this topic. — Prof. Mike van den Heuvel, UPEI
"The moratorium on irrigation wells for agricultural purposes will remain" in the second draft of the regulations, Jameson said, "as per our [election] platform."
That PC platform also promised to "obtain independent studies to provide conclusive, science-based research to develop a permanent policy" on irrigation wells.
Government still looking for 'good data'
"I do think we need science and research and good data to make good, informed decisions for the future," said Premier Dennis King, speaking at the official opening of the new Cavendish Farms potato research centre in New Annan on Sept. 17.
Referring to a research proposal, which at that very moment was being presented in Charlottetown before the natural resources committee, King said "perhaps if the standing committee were to be supportive of the research project, that's a good step in the direction to find out what if anything we can do with water in the future."
King reiterated his government's commitment to make a decision "based on research and information, as opposed to just kicking it down the road, which successive governments have done probably for far too long."
But according to Prof. Mike van den Heuvel, the UPEI biologist who presented that proposal, it would be at least four years before the project would be complete — which could serve to defer any government decision on the moratorium past the next provincial election.
Asked if the project would provide government with the data it needs to finally make a decision, van den Heuvel told reporters "to be clear, the province does have a lot of data. They are very knowledgeable. I think the public as much as anything wants, sort of, scientifically independent, as much as possible, answers on this topic."
Province had aimed to make decision next year
According to a government briefing note obtained by CBC News through freedom of information, the province had been expecting a related research project already underway, undertaken by van den Heuvel and funded by the province, to provide the necessary data for a decision on the moratorium to be made next year.
"The existing moratorium on new high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation will remain in place until scientific information is available from the University of Prince Edward Island study to be completed in the spring of 2021," the briefing note states.
The note is dated May 29, 2019, and was included in the information provided to former minister Brad Trivers.
That research, still underway, has been looking at water flows in Coles Creek, where the City of Charlottetown has installed new high-capacity wells to feed its municipal water system.
But the province said that research is behind schedule because those wells became operational later than expected.
You have a finite amount of water. What you're using it for makes no difference. — Prof. Mike van den Heuvel, UPEI
The province also no longer believes that research will provide the necessary data to make a decision on the irrigation moratorium.
"This study does not provide information on the practices of irrigating crops," a spokesperson for the Department of Environment told CBC via email.
Van den Heuvel said his current proposal will build on the Coles Creek research by installing four new high-capacity irrigation wells, three to be used by potato farmers and a fourth by a farmer planting other row crops, and studying their impact on local watersheds.
'Water is water'
Van den Heuvel said the moratorium singling out irrigation wells isn't based in science.
"Water is water," he said, whether it's being used for irrigation, to wash cars or to keep the taps running for city residents.
"You have a finite amount of water. What you're using it for makes no difference."
But the moratorium only applies to agriculture.
He said the data from his research could not only help government make a decision on whether to lift the moratorium, but could also help "in dealing with another big environmental problem we have in terms of nutrients."
Wetter soils can better retain organic matter, he said, meaning farmers with irrigation might have to apply less fertilizer, which in turn could reduce nitrate runoff and lead to fewer anoxic events in Island rivers.
Van den Heuvel said the research would cost up to $2 million, requiring funding from the provincial and federal governments and from industry.
Jameson said that while the province has committed to funding of more than $650,000 for the ongoing Coles Creek research project, "no decision has been made" as to whether to back the new proposal.
Back in January, P.E.I.'s former environment minister Brad Trivers said what was needed to settle the issue over irrigation wells was "unbiased, third-party research" with no involvement from government or industry, for fear the results could be tainted by politics.
Van den Heuvel's proposal would not only require funding from two levels of government. It would also include the Federation of Agriculture as a partner.
This isn't a problem that's going to be fixed in one fell swoop. — Environment Minister Natalie Jameson
And he said there would also be some level of involvement from potato processor Cavendish Farms, P.E.I.'s largest private employer, which for years has been lobbying to have the moratorium lifted.
Van den Heuvel told the committee arrangements had been made with Cavendish Farms to compensate farmers involved in the study for the cost of irrigation equipment.
Afterwards he told reporters, "Cavendish Farms was quite involved in getting this ball rolling on the research question, because as a company, it is of importance to them that their producers are making money and being productive."
CBC reached out to Cavendish Farms, but did not receive a response.
2018 proposal tabled under Liberals
According to documents tabled in the P.E.I. Legislature in 2018 by the previous environment minister Richard Brown, Cavendish Farms proposed the same kind of research project to the Liberal government of the day that van den Heuvel has now suggested to the PCs.
Asked if she shares Trivers' concerns that industry involvement might undermine public trust in the research, Jameson said industry and government "need to work together on this. And this isn't a problem that's going to be fixed in one fell swoop. There is so much work to be done in terms of next steps.… One thing that we can all agree on is that we need more science and we need more research."
Delays frustrating for both sides
This week those both for and against lifting the moratorium expressed frustration at the slow rate of progress on coming to a final decision on the matter.
For Catherine O'Brien with the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water, the most frustrating part is that the Water Act still isn't in effect.
"There's really no reason for that," she said. "We could have had the Water Act in place well before the pandemic hit. It is frustrating because … we need to be protecting our environment."
As to the moratorium, she said "everyone had their voices heard" in consultations to develop the Water Act. And in the legislation and regulations developed from those consultations, "the moratorium is still there. It's still in place. So as far as we are concerned, there should be no changes at this point."
Province already has data, farm group says
Port Hill dairy farmer Ron Maynard, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, said his group supports the research proposal but believes the province already has all the data it needs to lift the moratorium.
"The standing committee itself had a presentation in January from the Department of Environment and their experts saying there is sufficient water to allow for supplemental irrigation," Maynard said.
"It's politics, it's not science that's causing this not to be lifted."
Maynard said another dry summer only served to further reinforce the need for farmers to be able to expand their use of irrigation.
He said he hoped the province would act on interim results from the research, if it goes ahead, rather than wait four years or longer for the final results.
"There will be a number of farms that won't be in operation in four years' time if there's not something done with supplemental irrigation before that."
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