Nineteen years after the PC government of Pat Binns brought in a moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells, the P.E.I. government of Dennis King signalled Thursday that moratorium will soon come to an end.
P.E.I.'s much-debated new Water Act and accompanying water withdrawal regulations will come into effect next Wednesday, June 16, a written release issued Thursday by the province said.
On Thursday, the province unveiled new regulations under the act which would end the moratorium once they come into effect. Those regulations can only be enacted by cabinet 90 days after they've been delivered to the province's standing committee on natural resources — which received them Thursday.
"Our intentions are very, very much to protect water on P.E.I. so it's there for absolutely everybody, but we finally have a fairness lens on how water is accessed," said Steven Myers, P.E.I.'s environment minister.
The major change is that the blanket moratorium on high-capacity wells is being replaced — farmers can now apply to government for access to water. Applications will be assessed case by case, based on the health of local watersheds and farmers' drought contingency plans, Myers said.
Then "a decision would be made in the department based strictly on science," Myers said.
This year, for instance, Myers points out there has been lots of rain and P.E.I.'s groundwater has been recharged, but if water gets below a preset level, farmers will have to use their drought contingency plan, which may involve turning off irrigation.
For 19 years, successive P.E.I. governments — including the King government — said they needed more research before deciding what to do with the moratorium.
No new wells this summer
During the spring sitting of the legislature, the standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability provided seven recommendations to government. Myers said government is responding to each of them, including the development of a sustainable irrigation strategy. When the sustainable irrigation strategy is drafted it will be made public, he said.
"A sustainable irrigation strategy will be developed taking into account that each watershed is unique and for that reason a 'one size fits all' approach will not work across the province," said Myers in the written release.
"The sustainable irrigation strategy will also have requirements for soil health and the agriculture industry will be required to follow sustainable soil health practices."
Applications for wells can start 90 days after the act comes into effect, which will be in September. That means farmers will not have access to any new high-capacity wells this growing season.
'Should not be rushed'
Removing the moratorium on high-capacity wells "is a monumental decision that will affect future Islanders for generations to come," noted Opposition environment critic Hannah Bell in a written release.
"Developing a sustainable irrigation strategy that properly protects our water resources is crucial to the success of this act. This will be a major undertaking that should not be rushed," she added. Bell said she wants a commitment from government the moratorium will not be lifted until a solid irrigation strategy is in place.
The P.E.I. Certified Organic Producers Co-operative expressed surprise that the government will be ending its moratorium on drilling new high-capacity wells for irrigation.
"Although the PEICOPC has publicly stated the moratorium has been ineffective in protecting our groundwater resource, its lifting, in the absence of a clear, practical and comprehensive agricultural water use strategy is very concerning," the organization said.
"With this announcement comes a new urgency to begin this critical work."
The P.E.I. Potato Board called the announcement "welcome news," and "forward thinking," saying it "means our local family farms will have another option to help them handle future drought while producing food for those on and off the Island.
"This lack of access to water has been a consistent strain on Island farming families, and the change will help supplement natural rainfall, if needed."
The board added supplemental irrigation is just one tool that will help Island potato farms become more sustainable, along with reduced tillage, crop diversification, cover cropping, adoption of new varieties and improving soil health.
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