There's been a moratorium on deep water wells for over a decade on PEI. It was established in 2002 because of major drought conditions that year, linked to the overuse of groundwater by these wells.
They pose a danger to the Island in particular because its residents depends heavily on groundwater. For example, the city of Charlottetown runs entire rivers dry with its water consumption; Winter River hasn't flowed for several summers now. Clearly this is a delicate water table.
When the PEI Potato Board requested the moratorium be lifted in 2012, all fingers were pointed at Cavendish Farms as the motivator behind this request. Potatoes are a thirsty crop and if Cavendish wanted higher yields, they needed to exploit groundwater.
The ball really got rolling when the PEI Federation of Agriculture voted in favour of lifting the moratorium earlier this year. Now two farm organizations were pressuring the province, claiming they would use groundwater sparingly, only during dry spells. They said groundwater recharge rates would make up for their consumption.
Cavendish Farms claimed potato yields would double if deep water wells were allowed, a juicy promise for a struggling province.
All these claims were challenged, of course. Retired farmers will tell you Cavendish bullied the PEI Potato Board and the PEI Federation of Agriculture into requesting the moratorium's removal. They'll also tell you deep water wells are an awful idea for PEI, a disaster in the making.
Cavendish executives have stated that, if the moratorium is lifted, they intend to make deep water wells a contractual obligation for their growers, which are most growers on PEI. This hardly seems like a sparing use of groundwater.
One wildlife researcher with the University of PEI said allowing deep water wells would be equivalent to adding three Charlottetowns to the province. All claims of sustainability and recharge rates were unfounded, he said.
In the end, the province decided to keep the moratorium in place for the time being. There was even talk of establishing a water act on the Island to govern groundwater use. Islanders had reason to hope. Cavendish was fighting a losing battle.
Last week the gauntlet was thrown down as Cavendish executives went before a provincial committee and said, if the moratorium were not lifted, they might take their business elsewhere. This would mean significant downsizing in one of the province's major industries, putting a good number of people out of work. Cavendish, as the largest private employer in all the province, has put PEI is in an impossible position.
What began as a selfish request supported by false information has become a dangerous ultimatum, in which Islanders stand to lose either their livelihood or their water. Both amount to the same things - a devastated province.
Cavendish executives have asked Islanders to face the realities of the potato industry, how they need high capacity irrigation to produce a marketable French Fry. Instead Cavendish Farms should face the realities of a province dependent on limited groundwater. People need more than work on PEI; they need to live on PEI.