This post was originally published as an Op-Ed in the Journal Pioneer on April 7, 2021.
Living on an Island, we understand limits in a way that isn’t as obvious in other places. I think that’s why discussions on land and water use drum up so much interest.
The strain of climate change is being felt in many places, especially in agriculture. We need a sustainable irrigation strategy for PEI. And two of the pillars of that strategy must be environmental protection and fairness.
Past governments, led by both PC and Liberal, have shown with their choices that they do not really believe in environmental protection. It is treated mostly as an inconvenient afterthought. That has real consequences and, I would argue, the farming community especially suffers when government does not take their role as environmental stewards seriously.
I am happy the Water Act is finally being proclaimed, but with the recent regulation changes around holding ponds, the King government is demonstrating once again that their approach to environmental protections will be one of hindsight, not oversight. It also means that government is going to have to pick winners and losers.
I’ve heard it said again and again that we have plenty of water on PEI. I don’t believe our province is at risk of running out of water and that’s really never been the question. To present it as such is an oversimplification that misses the point entirely. It shows a real absence of understanding to the complexities of water management.
While we have plenty of water as a province, at the local level things are experienced differently. Our groundwater isn’t held in one shared pot that we either have or don’t. We have many aquifers, and some are far more strained than others. What happened last summer with the Dunk River is a good example of that.
This is why a blanket approach to water management will leave some communities worse off than others, and it leaves farmers in those communities with unequal access to water. What we really need to understand is how much water we can access in any given watershed without causing harm to the ecosystems. Then we need to figure out how many large users of water are within that watershed in order to determine what would be the fair share for each.
Premier King’s newest Environment Minister is taking an approach that doesn’t take into account fair access to the resource. His choices do not even consider what the fair share of any watershed actually is. Even the research the King government is funding doesn’t look into this. If the holding ponds popping up in the areas of the Dunk and Wilmot rivers put us close to the maximum we can safely extract, does that mean farmers in the area who didn’t put in holding ponds should have no access to water? How is that fair?
Minister Myers is pitting farmers against farmers, and his actions prefer farms that could afford to take a risk on holding ponds against the ones who could not. Instead of leaving the regulations as they were, with holding ponds being required to withdraw less than a high capacity well in a few years, Minister Myers has now created a situation that requires constant management and a system that makes some farmers winners and others losers.
Islanders want to know how Premier King will decide who comes out on top and who has to suffer loss.
Decisions on our limited water resources must be based on providing equitable and fair access within the means of whatever watershed is being tapped. This should mean all farms are entitled to water use - not an unlimited amount of course, but to use their fair share of the amount that can be safely taken out. Decisions should not be based on who lobbies harder, or has the deepest pockets.
The standing committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability heard from presenters about how important it is to ensure fairness to all farmers in decisions around water use. We also reviewed years worth of presentations and feedback to help inform our report. The Minister forgets that when he dismisses the work of a legislative committee, he isn’t dismissing his colleagues in the Legislature, but he is intentionally choosing to ignore and go against countless Islanders who gave us their opinions and expertise.
On behalf of all Islanders, I am asking Premier King to explain why he is content to stand by while his Minister, who is responsible for the environment, ignores the legislative committee tasked with oversight on the Water Act, and with it, fair and sustainable access to water.
Lynne Lund, MLA
Official Opposition Critic for Environment, Water and Climate Change