Potato growers in Prince Edward Island are applauding long overdue changes to irrigation regulations.

It was supposed to be for one year only when the Prince Edward Island provincial government placed a moratorium on high capacity wells for irrigation in 2001. Instead, it lasted for two decades, causing countless potato crops to wilt under dry, hot summers.

“We may only need irrigation in some years. And even in the years we do need it, we may only need a few applications. So, it’s supplemental irrigation,” Greg Donald, manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board, explains in a phone interview.

P.E.I. is known for its sprawling potato fields. Most years the Maritime province holds the title of the potato capital of Canada and usually those fields are lush and green. P.E.I. has a mild maritime climate, strongly influenced by the warm waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, making it differ from many of its North American potato growing region counterparts, meaning they receive on average 890 mm of rain.

“The last three years have been really dry. And especially last year, like as bad as we all were here, one of our worst years was 2001. The central part of P.E.I. the drought was so bad that last year that yields were off in that part of the island by as much as 35 per cent,” Donald explains.

As the provincial government reviewed its water regulations during these dry years, it quickly became clear agriculture needed to be included in the changes.

History of the Moratorium on Agriculture Irrigation

In 2001, P.E.I. was hit hard with a horrible drought. Potato growers across the Island needed water for their crops and started applying for high capacity well permits.

“At the time, it was a one-year moratorium until they kind of said wait a second, there’s a lot of farms applying for these wells. We better make sure that we understand the resource and we have good process in place for permitting,” Donald explains.

In P.E.I. all the province’s water supply, including drinking water, comes from ground water. The moratorium applied only to agriculture, other businesses such as golf courses, could still water their fields.

Agriculture could still apply for low capacity wells or build irrigation ponds, but high capacity wells were off the table. According to the P.E.I. government’s website a high capacity well is defined as “any well where four litres per second or more of water is extracted.” Currently there are approximately 308 high capacity wells on the Island.

The lack of access to water was beginning to hamper the Island’s agricultural prospects, especially with the option to expand production area off the table due to the province’s small land base.

“It was getting real clear to the public here that if we want food production and farmers, we’re going to need to and design (a system) there to make sure we protect the resource in our environment, as well we need water for food production,” Donald says.

Finally, a Change for Water Regulations

After a lot of thought and work, the P.E.I. government decided they needed to create a Water Act to regulate water in the province. In February this year, the government announced the water regulation changes. The changes mainly focused on water conservation and included regulations which would allow high capacity wells for agricultural purposes again.

“Islanders want and deserve strong regulations, evidence-based decisions and healthy rivers and streams. Bringing the Water Act and water withdrawal regulations into effect will allow us to manage and track who is using what amounts of water, provide government experts with additional data and increase public transparency on water use,” Steven Myers, P.E.I. environment, energy and climate action minister, said in a news release about the changes.

In June the Water Act came into effect, with the high capacity well changes coming into effect later in September. The new regulations also included a clause for the province to create a supplemental irrigation strategy with input from the agriculture sector. This strategy will include the stipulations around applying for permits for high capacity wells.

“We’re really excited… it looks like it’ll be up to the government, but we’re hopeful that by next spring, our farmers will be able to have access to be able to get a permit or have the opportunity to get a permit for a high capacity well,” Donald explains.

Moving Forward with Access to More Irrigation

The change won’t just happen overnight though as the work is now just beginning for growers across the Island.

The P.E.I. Potato Board expects the amount of irrigation systems in the province will increase as growers are able to access high capacity well permits.

“This new ability for farms to get permits for wells should result in more investment in irrigation equipment as well as increased focus on the agronomy of irrigation, including irrigation scheduling and different types of irrigation. Getting local data and experience in supplemental irrigation is important, as irrigating potatoes in a place like P.E.I. is much different than in Western Canada or the Pacific Northwest,” Ryan Barrett, research and agronomy specialist with the P.E.I. Potato Board, explains in an email.

There is still a lot of collaborative work which needs to be completed before irrigation booms dot P.E.I. Expanding irrigation systems on the Island will require new infrastructure for water movement and power for the systems.

“For an individual, for not a lot of farm acreage, it’s a huge investment, and that’ll be a big, that’ll be a challenge for a lot of growers. You may not be able to be viable without it,” Donald explains.

He points towards provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta who have made irrigation funding announcements in recent years, saying P.E.I. may need to look into doing something similar. The P.E.I. Potato Board plans to continue working with the government and growers throughout these next steps.

Header photo — A centre pivot irrigation boom watering a potato crop on Prince Edward Island. Photo: P.E.I. Potato Board

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