(CBC - image credit)
Regulations attached to a new Water Act on Prince Edward Island will not allow any new high-capacity irrigation wells, except for a new agricultural research project the University of Prince Edward Island is conducting.
That news came as the province announced Friday that it intends to bring the long-awaited Water Act into effect on June 16, 2021.
"This has been the most consulted-on bill probably in the history of the P.E.I. government," Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action Steven Myers told CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin in an interview Friday afternoon.
Myers, formerly P.E.I.'s transportation minister, took over the Environment portfolio just two weeks ago, after a cabinet shuffle. "When I got in the chair here, I said, 'It's time that this gets moved into the final stage.'"
(The full interview with Myers can be seen on CBC News: Compass Friday evening; the show starts at 6 p.m. )
Designed to manage and safeguard the province's water supply, the Water Act was passed by the P.E.I. legislature in 2017 but never enacted.
One of its key roles: Regulating how water is extracted for use on the Island, including water farmers get from irrigation wells.
The government placed a moratorium on any new high-capacity wells back in 2002, and it has been hotly debated ever since. Some farmers, especially potato growers, have for years lobbied passionately in favour of more access to irrigation, as hot, dry summers shrink their yields.
Since January 2020, P.E.I.'s Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action has been working on a second draft of the regulations to be attached to the Water Act, following public consultations during the summer of 2019. Consultations on the Water Act itself took place in 2015 and again in 2017.
'Moratorium will stay in place'
The act is underpinned by four sets of regulations — including updated water withdrawal regulations, which say all water wells drawing above the level of domestic household consumption will require a permit.
Irrigation equipment like this can move water from holding ponds, which can be fed from wells or naturally collect rainwater.
"The moratorium will stay in place," Myers said. "It's pretty exciting what we're doing here; it's the first time ever we've protected water on Prince Edward Island from a holistic viewpoint."
He added: "We're not anti-agriculture. This isn't an attack on farming ... we have to protect drinking water on Prince Edward Island."
There is, however, a provision to grandfather existing clusters of low-capacity wells such as holding ponds used for agricultural irrigation, and a provision for new high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation research.
That's where things get interesting.
UPEI study to measure high-capacity well impact
Under the provision for research, the province has given the go-ahead to a proposal by the Canadian Rivers Institute at UPEI that will study the impacts of high-capacity wells in agricultural irrigation.
Michael van den Heuvel, the Canada Research Chair in Watershed Ecological Integrity at UPEI, proposed the study, and suggested it be jointly financed by government and the private sector.
As CBC News reported in September 2020, the study would involve installing new high-capacity irrigation wells on four P.E.I. farms and measuring the impact their use has on the local watershed. Van den Heuvel said the data would take four years to collect.
However, Myers said on Friday that the government alone will invest in the project to remove the need for financial contributions from industry. He also said the research would be expanded to consider soil health and the relationship between soil health, nutrient management and supplemental irrigation.
More help to develop better soil
According to a written news release, farms participating in the irrigation study must develop a soil health improvement plan. Producers will create plans for each farm property that outlines management practices to support soil health, including monitoring and testing soil health over time.
The agriculture industry says extra water is needed on P.E.I. farms to supplement rainfall, especially in years where hot and dry conditions can cut into crop yields.
The Department of Agriculture and Land plans to help farmers manage soil health through new incentives including a merit-based program for building erosion control structures, an incentive for soil-building rotational crops, an increase in support for spring tillage and winter cover crops (to prevent winter soil erosion), and more.
"I support decisions about water being informed by science and this research will provide valuable information on supplemental irrigation as part of a sustainable approach to farming," Bloyce Thompson, minister of agriculture and land, was quoted as saying in the government news release.
As required under the Water Act, the regulations will take effect after they've been in front of the standing committee of natural resources and environmental sustainability for 90 days. The regulations continue to be available online for public comment, the release said.
If the time comes where there's a requirement for more water, it's not going to be something that's handed over easily. - Steven Myers
Regulations can be changed much more easily than legislation can, Myers noted.
Does that mean the results of the research could eventually allow the moratorium to be lifted?
"I'm going to let the scientists take it and do their piece," Myers said. "If the time comes where there's a requirement for more water, it's not going to be something that's handed over easily."
At the same time, he noted that climate change is an extenuating factor in agricultural water use, "so we have to be open to change."
More from CBC P.E.I.