It’s become fashionable to say that the moratorium on deepwater wells should stay in place in PEI  until we get the green light from scientists who can assure us that it’s perfectly safe to lift the moratorium.

When some of the Water Act regulations were recently made public – without the regulations on water extraction which have also been drawn up – the Minister of Communities, Land and Environment, Hon. Richard Brown, was quoted in a Guardian article saying:

“We want any decisions to be based on science and not on politics. It’s important we get the science done in time for the regulations.”

This is a dangerous and misguided approach with this critically-important issue, and I want to explain some of the reasons why in this article. 

The Need to follow the “Precautionary Principle” with Deep-Water Wells

Putting the future safety, supply and long-term sustainable use of our limited and essential fresh-water resources in the hands of scientists is unwise. As professional, ethical and sincere as scientists may be, the fact remains that all scientific studies are limited and potentially fallible in their conclusions and recommendations.  Protecting our water is just too important to allow any margin for error or unnecessary risks, and high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation are an unnecessary risk.  PEI absolutely needs to adopt the “precautionary principle” with this issue.

The “precautionary principle” puts the onus on proving that there is no risk of potential damage – or possibly, catastrophic consequences – from the introduction or approval of a new product or process, rather than allowing those products and processes to be introduced based on the claim that there is no evidence that there will be damage or possibly catastrophic consequences.  And proving that there are no such risks with deep-water well irrigation is just not possible.

Given the fact that PEI is 100% dependent on underground aquifers for fresh water, compounded by the equally-important fact that we are surrounded by salt water that can encroach into our fresh water aquifers with excessive depletion of those reserves, it is imperative that the precautionary principle be strictly adhered to with all decisions relating to fresh water extraction from our underground aquifers.

Scientific studies will never be able to give absolute assurance that there will not be negative consequences from using more high-capacity wells to irrigate crops:  there are just too many complicated variables and “unknowns” for science to  factor into the  models and equations, adequately measure those variables and their interconnected dynamics, or fully understand and provide predictions that are certain.

There are no shortage of examples where “science” gave the go-ahead to additional high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation, then just a few years later, major problems and disastrous consequences ensued.  The rapid and irreparable depletion of fresh water aquifers throughout the world is one of the most serious problems facing our planet. If we can address water shortages using other strategies we have a moral obligation to make the pursuit and implementation of those alternative solutions a priority.

PEI is entirely surrounded by salt water and there is a very real possibility of further salt water encroachment into our aquifers with too rapid extraction. I received a fascinating document from a Facebook friend just last week concerning a saltwater encroachment study that was undertaken in PEI and NB roughly a half century ago. Part of the conclusion stated:

It seems the focus of current studies on high-capacity wells concerns whether expected (not certain) “recharge” rates can replenish what will be withdrawn from our fresh water aquifers with more deep-water wells. But what about scientific studies of saltwater encroachment? Are they also being done? I don’t think so.

How did the challenge of ensuring adequate water for our agricultural industry get framed as two outcomes: (a) allow more high-capacity wells, or else (b) face the inevitable decline and likely collapse of a viable agricultural industry in PEI? We need to set down the magnifying glass and consider the big picture.

Deep-Water Wells Don’t address the Real Water-shortage Problem

It seems that we’ve come to accept a completely untenable and unproven conclusion: irrigation must inevitably increase in PEI to keep agriculture viable as a result of  climate change.

Where is the evidence for this claim?  There have always been “dry” years affecting crops in PEI – I remember them well growing up on a potato farm – and although it may be true that there have been more dry spells in recent years, drawing a direct connection between those recent weather patterns, and changes in our global climate patterns, as evidence that it will continue along the same lines in the future is mostly theory and conjecture – and theory and conjecture is not the same as science. 

Regardless of whether we can expect more drought conditions in the future – and heavier rain events on a sporadic basis – such weather patterns don’t provide a scientifically-valid argument for more deep water wells; nor do they address the real, scientifically-proven facts related to why we are experiencing an increased need for freshwater crop irrigation.

A recent 18-year study showed a continuous loss of soil organic matter (SOM) in most of our farmland during that relatively short period of time – especially with the most heavily cropped areas in PEI. 

With the loss of SOM comes the loss of both nutrient-holding and water-holding capacity. This is a scientific fact that no one disputes, but addressing this major problem has not been a major part of the discussion regarding the perceived need for more irrigation in PEI, and more high-capacity wells and holding ponds.

The loss of SOM is causing many problems, including increased soil erosion, increased rates of leaching of pesticides and nutrients into our groundwater, depleted yields as a result of decreased water and nutrient-holding capacity of soils, etc.  [For more information on this see: “Declining Soil Organic Matter in PEI: An Indictment of Corporate Farming].  Although there is now a widespread consensus that we need to increase the SOM in our soil, the direct relationship between this core problem and the call for more deep water wells (and holding ponds) is not being receiving the attention it deserves.

What exactly does the loss of SOM over the past 20 years in heavily farmed areas mean in terms of a loss of water retention? Recent studies on this have not been done in PEI., but they have been undertaken elsewhere, and offer some guidance for the strategies we need to adopt to address a water-shortage problem with agriculture.

I came across one article by the Natural Resource Defence Council titled, “Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity,” which calculated the actual amount of additional water retained from an increase of 1% SOM, based on a number of reasonable assumptions:

“We want to know how much an increase of 1% organic matter would increase the water holding capacity of the soil. If an acre of soil is 820,264 kg, then 1% organic matter would be 8,202.6 kg/acre…. If we make the assumption that organic matter holds 10 times its weight, or 82,026 kg (180,836 lbs) of water. There are 8.3454 lbs in a gallon, so that is 21,668 gallons of water.”

21,668 additional gallons of water per acre from a 1% increase in soil organic matter…..that’s a lot of water!   Water that we should be working to reclaim by addressing the real problem of too little SOM rather than by attempting to replace that lost water with deep-water wells and holding ponds stealing from our fresh-water aquifers. 

Another 12-year study I came across that was undertaken in PEI [“Long-term influence of compost on available water capacity of a fine sandy loam in a potato rotation“] published in 2007, confirmed a “significant” increased water-retention capacity of soil with more organic matter. 

“Regression analysis showed that soil volumetric water content at both ?33 and ?1500 kPa matric potential was significantly related to soil C concentration, although the soil available water capacity remained unchanged. The results imply that the “non-nutrient” compost effect on potato productivity was related to soil water retention.”

Deep water wells are clearly not a real, long-term solution to the problem – they are ill-advised attempts to treat the symptoms while ignoring the root problems, and like putting a fresh coat of paint on a rusty car, it may look good for a short time, but that only helps to keep the real problem hidden. It will only continue to worsen until it reemerges with a vengeance, perhaps when it is no longer feasible or possible to solve.  You can always tow a rusted-out car to the auto salvage and buy a new one, but we unfortunately don’t have that same luxury with our soil.