Officials with P.E.I.'s Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action laid out a bare-bones plan Thursday for how water could be shared among various users — including farmers — once the province's moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells ends.
The King government quietly signalled the end of the 19-year moratorium earlier this month, introducing changes to regulations under the Water Act that could be implemented in September.
Speaking before the province's Standing Committee on Natural Resources Thursday, officials expressed confidence in their scientific understanding around how much water is available for extraction in each watershed on the Island.
"The tricky part is then figuring okay, how it gets divvied up," said George Somers, P.E.I.'s manager of drinking water and wastewater management.
Under the regulatory changes put forward by the province, applications for large irrigation wells would be considered in the same way for farms as they are for other industrial water users like golf courses and car washes. But acceptance would be contingent on the development of a sustainable irrigation strategy, and work on that strategy is just beginning.
Officials told MLAs on the committee Thursday that broad provincial criteria will be incorporated into the strategy — but there will also be conditions specific to each watershed.
Key among those principles is the idea of fair allocation of water resources, with limits on how much individual users holding permits would be allowed to access.
Officials put forward three possibilities in terms of how water allocation could be governed:
Through a series of co-operatives in each watershed;
By a central provincial water authority; or
On a first-come, first-served basis, as is the case now.
There was no support expressed among committee members for maintaining the status quo.
"I'm really glad to hear that we're looking at something more nuanced than that, and something that will allow for sharing while setting limits, but of course that brings in all kinds of complexities," said Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker.
Committee members brought up the challenges in considering the different intensities and efficiencies of various irrigation systems, the different sizes of farms and the need to ensure access for producers who've already made significant investments in irrigation systems.
However, Liberal MLA Robert Henderson also said a high priority in allocating water should be placed on allowing newly established operations to have a share.
"I don't think it should be first-come, first-served, where those that have the most money [to purchase irrigation equipment] get the watershed first," he said.
Significant water use demand
Under the Water Act, which came into force just last week, the province calculates the availability of water for extraction in a watershed by considering how much that extraction would reduce what's known as stream flow. The limit is to reduce flow by no more than 35 per cent below the base stream flow in the months of August and September.
With those calculations of available water in hand, the province is suggesting 90 per cent of that amount could be made available through the permitting and allocation process.
As an example, officials detailed the Dunk River watershed, an area with a large concentration of potato farms and significant demands on water use.
Bruce Raymond, P.E.I.'s manager of water and air monitoring, explained the province's calculation that roughly 45 million litres of water per day can be extracted from the Dunk watershed.
That also coincides with the amount of water that would be necessary if every potato farmer in the area were to irrigate with four inches of water per year.
But Raymond said allowing farmers who currently have permits letting them draw surface water for irrigation to switch to high-capacity wells to draw groundwater would significantly reduce the impact on stream flow.
Not all land is suitable for irrigation, he explained, but in drought years he said the demand for water would be higher. In low water years, officials said water allocations would be reduced.
Green MLA Hannah Bell asked how the department plans to balance the need for water for irrigation with municipalities and other industrial users.
Somers clarified that the amount of water available in each watershed is for all users, not just for farmers.
But he pointed to a priority list included in the Water Act that directs the minister to prioritize household and municipal water usage ahead of commercial, industrial and agricultural use in times of shortage.
Deputy minister Brad Colwill told the committee that the government is seeking the committee's input, but in the meantime will begin developing a draft of a sustainable irrigation strategy.
"I feel that we could have something available in the fall for discussion amongst different stakeholders who may have an opinion on this, and I'm sure many will," he said.
When we look at allocating water … we are using the best science that's available now. - George Somers
Liberal MLA Hal Perry asked why the province is able to lift the moratorium on new high-capacity irrigation wells now, when just last fall Premier Dennis King — as so many politicians have done over the past 19 years — said the province needed more research and data before it could make a decision.
Somers said that over all that time, the department has been making decisions on allocating water to other industrial users, but farmers have been excluded from that process because of the moratorium.
"When we look at allocating water… we are using the best science that's available now," said Somers. "In terms of our criteria, it will continuously evolve as science informs us better."
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