Irrigation Debate Rages on in P.E.I.

Canadian government may no longer be able to juggle political hot potato

Published online: Aug 25, 2014 Irrigation Andy Walker
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CORNWALL, Prince Edward Island — Looking for a stimulating discussion the next time you visit Prince Edward Island?

Walk into any public place and utter the words “deep water wells.” The debate over whether the potato industry should be given more access to what is officially known as “supplemental irrigation” cuts to the very heart of Island life—both now and in the future.

In P.E.I., the potato has always been king. Island producers grow over 85,000 acres of spuds every year, making it the No. 1 potato-producing province in Canada. That may not sound remarkable to many readers, but remember this is a jurisdiction of just over 141,000 people—we don’t lead in the production of many things.

As far as Gary Linkletter is concerned, that is both a blessing and a curse. He co-owns a potato production and packaging company founded by his father and his uncle. As chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board, he views the province’s leadership role in potato business as a source of pride. He also knows it puts the industry under a microscope in a way his colleagues in the rest of the country don’t have to endure.

Just how big are potatoes here? According to a study the Potato Board commissioned last year, they account for $1 billion in direct and indirect economic activity. That represents approximately 9 percent of the Island’s gross domestic product.

That is the context of the deep water well debate. Alarmed by the possible impact a growing number of potato irrigation systems would have on the water table, the provincial government put a one-year moratorium in place to study the issue. P.E.I. is the only jurisdiction in the country entirely dependent on groundwater for its drinking supply, so the issue impacts every Islander.

That one-year moratorium was supposed to be up in the fall of 2003 ,but the government of the day ignored the deadline. The discussion around the issue then convinced the former Progressive Conservative government of Pat Binns this was a political hot potato (no pun intended). The thing politicians like to do with hot potatoes is to ignore them until they cool down, and that’s what they did.

When the Liberals under Robert Ghiz came to power, they thought that was good advice and it seemed to work until last summer. It was the third year in a row there was an extended period with no rain. Unlike most of the major potato-growing areas in western Canada and United States where a lack of rain makes irrigation a necessity, on P.E.I. irrigation is only used during dry periods.

Linkletter made an impassioned plea to the media for the government to lift the ban, saying all the research done by the Department of Environment proved additional wells were no threat to the water supply. By December, there were rumors circulating the ban might be lifted. Those opposed to the idea, like environmentalist Sharon Labchuk, sprang into action. Labchuk maintains the additional irrigation could mean additional pesticides in the water and that would translate into more dead fish, among other things. A major fish kill, usually after a heavy rain, is unfortunately an annual summer tradition in P.E.I. This marks the fourth consecutive year it has happened—the other three were traced to pesticide runoff, while this year’s incident is still under investigation.

Since then the debate has raged on—in public venues like a legislature committee and in letters to editors and privately at many Island dinner tables. The government thought it had come up with a way to cool off this hot potato again—at least until after the next election. They are drawing up a new water act and said the moratorium would stay in place until the legislation was on the books.

However, the landscape has changed again. McCain Foods has closed its potato processing plant in the province. That leaves Cavendish Farms, owned by the Irving family of New Brunswick, as the only game in town. The company maintains an end to the moratorium is vital to ensuring the quality of potatoes coming to its operation. In fact, they have threatened to follow McCain out of town if the ban isn’t lifted soon.

That has caught the provincial government between the proverbial rock and hard place. Lifting the moratorium would carry a high political price—the move has little support outside the potato industry. On the other hand, Cavendish Farms is the largest private sector employer in the province, and the loss of over 600 jobs would be a staggering blow to the economy. It is hardly the scenario a government wants as the clock ticks down toward an election.


Source: Troy Media