Water Act Regulations still raising concerns

The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water has some over-arching concerns about the draft Water Act regulations.  We have also submitted a clause-by-clause review of the draft regulations, which will be dealt with in another submission.

One of our main concerns is the assumption throughout the provincial print and on-line material that we have plenty of water, using less than 2% of our annual recharge.  Everything I have read says that recharge is a very hard thing to figure out.  You take the annual precipitation and any other inputs such as some from streams and ponds).  Then you have to look at what runs off the land before it can actually recharge the aquifer.  You also have to look at transpiration and evaporation, and all the water usage that doesn’t go back to the aquifer and exports (including potatoes and cruise ships).  We want to be very careful that we have these numbers absolutely right.

The provincial government is also acting as though we know how climate change will affect water supply, but in reality, we don’t.  If we get heavier rain episodes, much of that water runs off and does not soak into the aquifer.  We hear that climate change is actually going to increase our recharge.  Yet when we look at UNB Hydrogeology Professor Kerry MacQuarrie’s presentation during the Water Act hearings, he said that scientific studies called for anything between a 12% decrease in precipitation to a 7% increase.  That is a large variation and one that makes us think that we really don’t have a good enough handle on potential impacts.

When talking about irrigation and the water regulations, we seem to be worrying too much about water and not enough about soil organic matter.  It does no one any good to treat these as unrelated issues.  As the recent Agriculture Canada research into PEI potato fields has clearly shown, our levels of organic matter continue to drop in far too many fields.  That leads to soils which store less moisture.

We also need to include the issues of nitrates and other contaminants.  Even if it turns out that we have lots of water, is it good quality water, and will more irrigation lead to increases in nitrates or pesticides, and anoxic conditions?  The Act itself says “that access to and use of water be sustainable and not harm water quality, water security or the ecosystems that support water quality and water security”.  Again, this is a huge problem.  A recent report entitled A Renewed Conservation Strategy for Atlantic Salmon in PEI says thatWhile recognizing the importance of agriculture to the PEI economy, there is an urgent need to address the impacts arising from intensive row crop production if viable salmon populations are to be restored to even a fraction of their former range on PEI. This issue has received considerable attention over the years, however sedimentation, fish kills and anoxic events continue to impact our rivers and estuaries. Field consolidation, hedgerow removal, shortened crop rotations and fall tillage, compounded by the vagaries of climate change, are just some of the practices at issue. There is no one piece of legislation, organization or individual that can solve the problem. A multi-pronged approach is needed that includes industry, government, researchers, and environmental groups to find solutions so that productive agricultural operations can co-exist with healthy functioning aquatic ecosystems.”

All the regulations meet both the spirit and the letter of the legislation.  We have already seen too many examples of people circumventing legislation (the Lands Protection Act, for example.)  Some people are already circumventing the spirit of the Water Act with the holding ponds.  Under the regulations, a high-capacity well is capable of pumping 345 cubic metres of water a day.  What is to stop people from pumping 340 cubic metres per day and irrigating their potatoes, thus once again circumventing the moratorium on high-capacity wells?  And the distinction between low-capacity wells and high-capacity wells is artificial.  “Low” is anything above 25 cubic metres per day, while “high” is 345 cubic metres per day and up.  There needs to be new categories so that 340 cubic metres is not seen as “low”.

The regulations seem to have slipped away from the precautionary principle (that in the face of scientific uncertainty, action should be taken to prevent potentially serious risk without waiting for further research) and intergenerational equity (the idea of fairness between generations).  These two key issues were repeatedly raised at the public meetings, and we need to make sure that these concerns are reflected in the regulations.

Gary Schneider, Co-chair

Environmental Coalition of PEI,

member group of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water