Submission by the
Green Party of Prince Edward Island
Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry
Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly
March 6th 2014.
“I understood when I was just a child that without water, everything dies. I didn't understand until much later that no one "owns" water. It might rise on your property, but it just passes through. You can use it, or abuse it, but it is not yours to own. It is part of the global commons, not "property" but part of our life support system”
Marq de Villiers, Nova Scotian writer and journalist
Last month, a group of esteemed scientists at the University of California analysed findings of satellites which are tracking the world’s water reserves. They did so with a rising sense of dread. All over the world, from California to the Middle East to North Africa to South Asia the picture is disturbing. These hydrologists concluded that we are at a crisis point, and that the areas in most danger of imminent, acute, irreversible water shortages are those places where there have been decades of bad management and overuse. The profound consequences of acute water shortages are many and varied – for water is the lifeblood not only of our bodies, but also our economy, our communities and our well-being.
But so what, you may ask. These are places far away and with no relevance to water-rich, little old PEI. Not so. California is not naturally a drought region; many of the other areas on the brink of water crises have become so as a direct result of mismanagement. At the top of the list of activities that have endangered water reserves in these areas is crop irrigation, closely followed by fracking and urban sprawl. PEI is no more immune to our own water crisis than we are to the ravages of climate change. As many parts of the world struggle to adapt to a future without adequate water, we here on PEI have an invaluable asset - a largely undisturbed, though acutely vulnerable reserve of groundwater.
The Green Party of PEI wishes to endorse all of the recommendations of The Coalition to Protect PEI Water, of which we are a member. We endorse the submission wholeheartedly and feel no need to reiterate the very comprehensive and compelling arguments put forward on behalf of the group last week. Instead we plan to expand on some of the ideas presented, and to look at the issue of high capacity wells and the future of agriculture from a holistic, Green perspective. We shall approach the issue from 3 separate but interconnected angles; firstly, what has come to be known as “the science”; secondly, the economics, and ecology of the agricultural model from which this request comes; and thirdly, the uncertain future we face, and the ecological circumstances in which all decisions we make today will play out.
1. “The science”
Like many words, “science” is slippery. It means different things to different people, but when uttered by people in positions of power and authority, like Ministers of a Province for example, it carries a gravitas which can intimidate others and shut down debate. The crux of Minister Sherry and the potato board’s shared position is that “the science” supports a lifting of the ban. But science is not a package of carefully filtered information presented as a final, incontestable truth; science is a dynamic, continuously unfolding process. Science is the ongoing clash of differing ideas from which the light of truth temporarily shines, until newer and better information illuminates the issue further. Science, in recent memory, declared DDT safe. Scientific research sold us on the benefits of toxic additives being introduced into almost everything we use and eat. Commercial science is most often sponsored opinion, and although it is not easy to stand one's ground against the pressures of corporate strategies and the desire to embrace new technologies for economic gain in a competitive marketplace, we must also be responsible to future generations and make key decisions with due diligence to their inherent implications in the very long term. Water is more than a commodity, it is life itself. Good science is public, unbiased, evidence-based, and peer-reviewed; what we have had from the Department of Environment is none of these. When it comes to groundwater on PEI, we know so very little. Claims such as the oft-uttered “We currently only use 7% of the available groundwater Island-wide” is designed to calm any fears we may have about over-extraction, but is highly misleading. If one has a well, as I do, there is no way to determine how much water is available or used on Mermaid Lane and this is the reality for our precious water resource across the Island. Once the wells are in place there is no monitoring done and unless your neighbours’ wells dry up or the streams run dry you can continue to pump as much water as you want. Comparing extraction to recharge rates is basically useless for evaluation of the water conditions in any one part of the island, and therefore useless for setting water policy on the whole. Evaluation of potential water use should be at the very least be focused to the particular watershed, and it is clear that some watersheds on the island are already overstressed. The Department of the Environment tells us there is plenty of water, yet every year streams dry up and when they do the fish in those streams are just as dead as those that float to the surface when we have a ‘Fish Kill’. Dry streams, creeks and brooks are a regular summer occurrence even though we are apparently using only 7% of our available supply. The Winter River, for example has already experienced negative environmental impacts such as dry stream beds and degraded habitat as a result of extraction by Charlottetown’s existing deep wells. At least Municipalities keep records, so we know that in Charlottetown the 35,000 residents, 1686 businesses and many institutions along with their employees, students, patients, guests and tourists use an average of 20 million liters of water per day. Summerside uses over 8 million liters per day and Montague’s 6,000 residents use just under half a million liters per day.
According to the numbers published by The Department of the Environment, PEI uses 73,225,000 (seventy-three million, two hundred and twenty-five thousand) liters of water per day, again we have no way of knowing how accurate that number is. Would it surprise you if I told you that the Irving potato processing plant uses more than 12% of that amount? Yes, the New-Annan Plant uses high capacity wells to draw 9,000,000 (nine million) liters of water per day, every day. That’s more than the City of Summerside! The potato industry is currently using deep water, high capacity and residential wells along with surface water to irrigate potatoes in the summer while the potato washing, packing and processing businesses use water every day. How much of our shared resource do they use in total? Shockingly, we have no idea. 89,000 acres of potatoes were planted on PEI in 2013. Do we want to water them?
Because of the potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences of disrupting our ground water, we must follow the precautionary principle and be absolutely certain that any drawdown of water is not threatening the integrity of the aquatic ecosystems in the vicinity. In order to do this, we need far more detailed studies on individual watersheds than currently exist and a cumulative prediction of what the potential implications for the entire PEI aquifer are if more high capacity wells are to be added.
I wish to say a few words about the domination of science over essential human values and integrity; of logic over intuition. It has been stated that we must make decisions based on the facts only, and not let emotions get in the way, as if in the debate between the head and the heart, only one of these offers true and useful information. I think this is wrong. I don’t disregard science – I think it has an enormously important role to play in making smart, informed decisions, but I don’t disregard the information I receive from my heart either, and I think everyone in this room knows what I mean. Intuition is about instinctive awareness; what we sometimes refer to as a gut instinct. Personally speaking, my intuition has rarely let me down in important decisions in my life. If something feels right, or someone feels trustworthy, it is almost always borne out in reality – and vice versa. I am certain that when Islanders are asked whether it is worth risking the long-term health of an irreplaceable resource, and the long-term security of their and their children's access to ample water, simply in order to grow bigger potatoes, they will say that it just doesn’t feel right. It is intuitively wrong. Don’t think that this level of knowing is somehow worthless, it is a deep understanding that should not be ignored. As renowned Canadian author and thinker Malcolm Gladwell says: “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”
So let us do the science properly, remembering that good science is public, unbiased, evidence-based, and peer-reviewed; and let us be cautious and make a decision only after we have gathered enough information to know with a very high degree of certainty that our water is safe. But let us also not ignore the deluge of public sentiment that says; “not only does this not make sense to me, this simply feels wrong; don’t do it”.
2. The economics and ecology of agribusiness.
A common thread in the arguments of the lobby to lift the moratorium is the need for PEI potato producers to remain competitive in a cutthroat global marketplace. There are so many aspects of potato production in which PEI is at a competitive disadvantage - distance from markets, shorter growing season, thinner, poorer soils, the economies of scale, to name a few - that the lack of irrigation will never overcome all these inherent disadvantages. Even regionally, Island producers are significantly less profitable than their counterparts in New Brunswick, and could never hope to compete with the potato producers in places like Washington and Idaho. It is the opinion of the Green Party of PEI that the model of agricultural production which is heavily dependent on fossil-fuel inputs, monocropping, pesticides, is highly mechanised and capitalised is quickly becoming obsolete. The costs of inputs, vulnerability to disease, climatic instability and reliance on long-distance transportation mean that it will be increasingly difficult to grow our food in this manner and make a profit. This is not just a PEI problem of course, all over the world the notion of “peak food” is prompting wholesale changes in agricultural practices. Many farmers have already recognised this and have made the transition to more sustainable, ecologically benign and predictably prosperous practices. It is not only farmers that are heavily invested and committed to this agricultural model; several large processors on the Island, and our provincial government hold large stakes.
The Green Party believes that PEI needs to make a choice: do we continue down the road of corporate monoculture agribusiness or do we investigate and invest in real futuristic models; methodologies being proven elsewhere that are both sustainable and economically viable? Agricultural practices can improve not diminish the organic content of our soils; can protect our precious water not pollute and degrade it; can produce safe, nutritious food, and provide a good living for farmers, can preserve our rural communities and provide thousands of good jobs, and could really, truly launch PEI into a healthy, prosperous, sustainable future. Everyone eats, and at this key moment, we have the potential to provide real leadership in our own unique way, to develop a vision to provide quality food to an expanding market of aware consumers. It is our belief that PEI needs to start preparing for this transition now. Lifting the moratorium on high capacity wells will perpetuate our commitment to an agricultural model built on borrowed time. While none of us can say with certainty exactly what impacts a lifting of the moratorium may bring, we can look back at what effects certain agricultural practices have already had on our land and water. We have high levels of nitrates in our groundwater, widespread and recurring anoxic conditions, eroding soils with a low organic content, and siltation and fish kills in our streams, not to mention some of the highest cancer rates in the country. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have billion dollar agricultural businesses providing all the production and jobs required to keep our provincial economy ticking along without all the environmental and social costs.
3. Our unknown and uncertain future.
It is not only the future of water availability globally and locally which is in doubt; there are many critical systems upon which society depends that are showing increasing signs of stress. Questionable supplies of food, energy and water, and disruption in the climate and economy all add up to a particularly uncertain future. While it is beyond the scope of a presentation such as this to give a synopsis of the entire gamut of global threats, we feel it is important that this increasingly accepted, mainstream view of our collective future be articulated by someone at these hearings.
Climate change is not only a good example of how the scientific process works, it is also an imminent and real peril to PEI in general and water in particular. The most recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.” It is rare to hear such unqualified language in scientific releases (unless you live on PEI). The panel – which consists of hundreds of respected scientists worldwide – raised its level of certainty about climate change being real and that it is caused by human activity from 90% in their previous report in 2012 to 95% in this one released last fall. That is real science – public, unbiased, evidence-based and peer-reviewed. And even at that they are only prepared to say that they are 95% certain. Contrast this with the “science” with which this committee has been presented.
In terms of the matter at hand, climate change hangs over us in two distinct ways; uncertainty over future precipitation amounts and patterns, and sea level rise. As sea levels rise – note not if, but as – the danger of salt water intrusion increases. Any lowering of the water table only accelerates and intensifies this process. Because this province is a porous sand bar surrounded by salt-water, and salt-water is denser than freshwater, the potable water upon which we depend for our daily needs ‘floats’ like a bubble upon a saline mass. That ‘bubble’ comprises two types of water, the upper being replaceable from rain and snow-melt on an annual basis, the lower having had its origins during the Ice Age, several thousands of years ago. This lower layer is known as connate water. Once the connate water begins to be tapped it will be replaced by salt-water drawn from the fringes, leading to contamination of supply. The low-lying areas of this Island where potato farming is most concentrated will be vulnerable to early exhaustion and saline intrusion. The combination of this process and sea level rise creates a potentially profound and irreversible threat to our fresh water reserves. Rain fall patterns, like the weather itself, are inherently unpredictable. However, the trend worldwide is for increasing unpredictability, and rainfall happening more often in torrential downpours related to more frequent and severe storms. Locally in the last few years we have had events when 5 inches of rain have fallen in the Maritimes within 24 hours. This does not lend itself to replenishment of ground water supplies, especially if those rain events occur at a time of year when Island soils are unprotected. Indeed, existing problems such as pesticide run-off and siltation will be exacerbated.
The Green Party believes that Prince Edward Island is at a critical time in its history. One of our greatest assets is, as Horace Carver titled his recent report on land use, “The Gift of Jurisdiction”. To a far greater extent than almost any other Island of our size, we have an opportunity to shape our future, and to choose the Prince Edward Island we prefer. We can, and must develop a comprehensive water policy for our province. Our neighbour, Nova Scotia has an excellent template called “Water for Life” upon which an Island water policy could be crafted. As they state in their policy “People will not choose to visit, live or do business here without a good quality, secure supply of water.” I chose to first visit, then live, and ultimately set up a business on Prince Edward Island because it is not the same as everywhere else. The more we strive to copy development patterns in the rest of the world, the more we lose our precious distinctiveness, and the less our children have to inherit. Our greatest resource on Prince Edward Island is not minerals, it is not even our rich though thin topsoil; it is our quality of life. We must protect it, and therefore, we ask that you maintain the moratorium on high capacity wells.
Respectfully submitted on behalf of the Green Party of Prince Edward Island.
March 6th 2014.