This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Wells.jpgThe National Farmers Union (NFU) will hold its Annual District Convention at the Milton Hall tomorrow (Tuesday, March 19, 2019). Registration begins at 9:30am and the day ends at 4pm. It promises to be an interesting day.  Anyone can attend, a lunch is served, and the cost is $20. The full agenda can be found here.  Speakers will include:

Jean-Paul Arsenault who was very involved in the Carver Commission round of public meetings on the land;

Mike Van den Heuvel who is conducting a study on water levels, and will likely speak about high capacity wells, supplemental irrigation, etc.;

Laurie Loane from the Agricultural Sector Council who will speak on various technical programs available to farmers and farm workers; and,

Hon. Richard Brown, Minister of Communities, Land and the Environment.  What Minister Brown will speak about is anybody’s guess, but he’ll probably be asked lots of questions about the Lands Protection Act as well as high capacity wells. 

One question the Minister is sure to be asked is whether the Liberal government plans to allow Cavendish Farms to dig more high capacity wells in conjunction with a proposal it submitted to government to “study” the impacts of high capacity wells last Spring.  That proposal was submitted notwithstanding the fact that there is currently a moratorium on high capacity wells until such time as the study that Mike Van den Heuvel (Rivers Institute & UPEI) is currently undertaking is completed, which is not expected until 2021.

Some Background on the Cavendish Farm Proposal

Cavendish Farms submitted a high capacity well proposal to government last year (April 6, 2018) but no one knew anything about it until it was mentioned during a presentation which Cavendish Farms (Robert Irving; John MacQuarrie & Jubs Bristow) gave to the Communities, Land and Environment standing committee on November 1, 2018. 

John MacQuarrie [former Deputy MInister of Agriculture with the PEI government, now Director of Environmental Sustainability with Cavendish Farms] made the following comment during that presentation:

That’s why we developed a proposal that we presented to government back in April that combined UPEI, that combined the rivers institute, agriculture Canada, three watershed groups and ourselves to look at: Can we put some science around investigating the potential for irrigation on PEI? Because we’re not saying it can be done everywhere. In fact, we know that every field can’t be. What we’re saying is – and it was part of our presentation – there is a way forward where we can collect the evidence to really determine how can irrigation be done sustainably in PEI. So that was a proposal we developed and put forward. [ Meeting Transcript, November 1, 2018, p. 74]

There was obviously lots of interest in MacQuarrie’s revelation following the hearing.  On November 14, 2018, PC MLA Steven Myers challenged the government about this proposal from Cavendish Farms during Question Period:

Steven Myers: Question to the minister: How many meetings has government had with the Irving’s and Cavendish Farms to discuss their secret proposal?

Richard Brown: What’s wrong with companies coming forward with proposals in order to grow the economy, grow jobs here on Prince Edward Island and do it in an environmentally sustainable way? Why should we not sit at the table with these companies as we sit with any farmer or any company that wants to come here to Prince Edward Island?

Following that somewhat heated exchange between Myers and Brown, CBC published an article titled, “There were no secret meetings,’ Cavendish Farms says in response to exchange in legislature,”

Cavendish Farms denied there was a “secret” proposal in a prepared news release, stating that the proposal submitted to government was asking groups to support the research being done so scientists can determine if irrigation will be detrimental to the aquifer or put Island water sources at risk.

“If the research shows that there’s no impact, then the next step would be to look at lifting the moratorium on specific case-by-case applications.” 

What this suggested was that new high capacity wells could be dug without first lifting the moratorium, which seemed like a contradiction, and to some, a way for Cavendish Farms to circumvent the moratorium.

Under pressure to be transparent, Cavendish Farms gave the PEI government permission to share the Proposal and it was tabled in the Legislative Assembly the following day. 

Where’s the confusion coming from?

Since last November, Minister Brown has been adamant that there will be no more high capacity wells allowed until the UPEI study is complete in 2021. 

As recently as March 7, 2019 – during a CBC Island Morning interview –  dealing with the question of why the government’s draft Water Act regulations recently released for public consideration and review held back on releasing (despite being completed) the regulations concerning water extraction and high capacity wells, Minister Brown stated: 

“We are still under a moratorium on high capacity wells. We are not proposing to lift the moratorium on high capacity wells without science. And lots and lots of science, and plus, with public consultations.”

Kerry Campbell did a good job pushing Mr. Brown to explain how he could have the regulations drawn up for high capacity wells without the science, but then argue that he can’t release them for review because the science wasn’t completed: 

“We’re going to potentially have a Spring election. You have regulations which you have developed, so you’ve made some decisions on what to do with high capacity wells, but you’re not sharing that with the public…Do you not see that there might be a transparency issue if you’ve developed the regulations but go into an election without sharing them with the public?”

Brown told Campbell that he would go back to the committee to ask that the extraction regulations (including high capacity well extraction) be released, but to date that has not happened.

So the main reason why I’m posting this information today is that I’ve heard credible rumours that the group at Cavendish Farms who originally hatched the project proposal to allow for some high capacity wells (on Cavendish Farm contract grower fields) are growing increasingly upset that the government is not giving the project the “go ahead”.   Is there a divide within government on this?

Although Richard Brown seems solid on his promise that there will be no high capacity wells until the longer-term study is completed, which will be at least 2021, what I find concerning is the statement in the proposal that:

“….government officials directed Cavendish Farms to identify watershed group collaborators as a first step toward considering sites for new permits. In response Cavendish Farms has met with and secured agreements with 3 watershed groups to collaborate in a project to demonstrate a sustainable approach to irrigation.”

Who exactly were these government officials?  I suspect – since both the Department of Communities, Lands and Environment and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries are mentioned as potential participants on the project, that the supportive push for the proposal came from Deputy Minister of Agriculture John Jamieson, and because it’s Richard Brown who is ultimately responsible for the Water Act and whether the moratorium on high capacity wells is lifted or remains in place, he’s been forced to deal with the fall out. 

With the key scientist undertaking the UPEI study – also noted as  participant in the Cavendish Farms project proposal. Mike Van den Heuvel. and the Minister responsible for the Water Act, Richard Brown, both speaking at the NFU Convention tomorrow, perhaps by the end of the day there will be some more clarity about what our government is planning with regards to our groundwater, whether the Cavendish Farms proposal is now off the table, and whether we’re likely to see those high capacity well regulations prior to an election.