There is a great deal of seemingly unavoidable pollution on PEI’s south shore. The book Around Kinkora Area, which charts the history of this “agricultural heart of the Island” tracks a steady decline of separate families growing and harvesting the province’s crops in the region (Farmer 77). At the same time, industrialization made it possible for fewer people to maintain larger swaths of land, so the trend became that very few farmers were expected to produce a great many crops.

To do this they relied on new, expensive technologies that made farming more efficient (113). To pay for upgrading these farmers had to increase production even more. This led to a vicious cycle of having to pay off the upgrades with the larger harvests, thus requiring even more harvesting to make a profit, which in turn can only be done with better technology.

A part of said technology were and are fertilizers, which help keep crops healthy and harvests more profitable. A major ingredient in fertilizers is a water-soluble compound called nitrate.

Who Does This Issue Effect?

In Humans, rising nitrate levels in our water sources pose multiple potential health risks. First and foremost Methemoglobinemia. This is a condition in which rising nitrate levels in your body interact with your hemoglobin and iron which are essential in ensuring your organs receive sufficient oxygen supply for optimal health. Without sufficient oxygen supply, it inhibits your body’s ability to function properly and in severe cases lead to complications including seizures or even death of the affected person. “Luckily, methemoglobinemia when caused by too many nitrates and nitrites can be treated when these elements are taken out of the diet." (Niedziocha, L. 2013)

Rising nitrate levels in our water supply can also increase the risk of certain forms of cancer. Reducing the number of nitrates consumed can lower one's risk of developing cancers linked to higher nitrate concentrations.

Plant and aquatic life that inhabit the area are affected, when the nitrate levels increase they systematically change the way plants grow and the fish reproduce. Algae growth will increase with the presence of nitrates. Through photosynthesis, algae growth promotes an increase in the level of oxygen found in the water during the sunlight hours, however when there is no sunlight the Algae ceases to produce oxygen which drastically reduces the amount of oxygen found in the water needed for plants and other aquatic life require for survival.

Farmers, although they are the main perpetrator of the rising nitrates in the local water supply. They are also a victim in this scenario. Farmers face a growing controversy from the public at large who are concerned about the health and safety of our water supply whilst meeting crop demands placed on them by that same public.

Main Causes

In Prince Edward Island the rising nitrate levels in the water can be directly linked to the farmers who work the land surrounding the waterways. Farmers require soil to be rich in nutrients to allow for high yields, one way to aid in this is to utilize various fertilizers. A key component in fertilizer is nitrates and although beneficial to crop growth the same benefits do not translate when nitrates enter into our aquatic ecosystems. Farmers utilize fertilizers to enrich the soil to help increase crop yields, over farming, lack of crop rotation have led to a build-up of nitrates in the water supply.

Nitrates enter the water from the land is through run-off. Runoff occurs when the soil is at its saturation point and it is unable to absorb any more moisture that is being applied via precipitation or irrigation. Run-off at strips the topsoil from the land and carries it along with excess water to a drainage point albeit a ditch, valley, or the closest water source. Once the run-off enters the water-source nitrate levels begin to rise

Other contributing factors:

  • Although minimal on the scale there are several other contributing factors to the increase of phosphorous or nitrate levels in our water supply.
  • Use of fertilizers outside of commercial crops such as home landscaping or gardening
  • Improperly maintained of residential septic systems
  • Manure storage or holding areas on farms not properly maintained
  • Not using proper buffers filled with root vegetation such as plants, trees and another shrubbery on residential properties


There are two types of solutions to the nitrate issue, preventative measures, and removal. Preventative options are those that help stop the nitrates from running into the waterways. Removal options actually remove the nitrates once they are in the water. Both are solutions that need to be invested in to save Prince Edward Islands aquatic life, and avoid potential future issues in drinking water.

Preventative Options

There are quite a few preventive measures to choose from. Building better buffers, planting cover crops, drainage management, and nutrient management are the options we recommend the Prince Edward Island government focus on.

Building Better Buffers

“A buffer strip is an area of land maintained in permanent vegetation that helps to control air, soil, and water quality, along with other environmental problems, dealing primarily on land that is used in agriculture.”

Prince Edward Island requires a buffer zone of 15 meters around a watercourse boundary or a wetland boundary. One issue with this is that PEI has only regulated buffer zones since 1999. Buffer zones are most effective with a variety of trees and plants.

Recently some farmers in the United States have been putting a woodchip bioreactor between their crops and the waterways. This is similar to a buffer zone, the runoff goes through the woodchip bioreactor the same way it would go through the plant life in the buffer zone. In both cases, nitrates are absorbed or filtered out of the runoff. Woodchip bioreactors don’t remove all the nitrates but can reduce nitrates by 12% - 74%. However, these buffers only have a life of 10 years.

Cover Crops

Prince Edward Island is known for our potatoes, and with potato farming catch crops also known as cover crops are often used. “A catch crop is a crop grown in the same year as the main crop but after the main crop. The main role of cover crops, in this case, is to protect the soil from erosion and to prevent leaching of nutrients unused by the potatoes.” (EAP, 1997). Crop rotations are another way of using cover crops. PEI regulations state that regulated crops, such as potatoes, cannot be planted in the same field more than once in three years.

E. Sears

Drainage and Nutrient Management

Drainage management involves regulating the runoff of nutrients that drain from agricultural fields that help prevent degradation of the water in local streams and lakes. Nutrient management is the regulation of fertilizers. This includes applying fertilizers in the proper amount and with the right method. These are regulated through the Fertilizer Act of Canada. The penalties, for not following regulations can be considered too lenient. Some large companies may feel it is worth it to just pay the fine, the rewards may outweigh the risks in these cases.

Removal Options

When considering removal options there are two types, natural and man-made. Both use similar concepts of creating ecosystems to use up the excess nitrates.

Floating EcoSystem

Floating EcoSystems are created out of recycled bottles and can be custom made for location. The size and the types of vegetation change depending needs of the location, and the price depends on these factors.

Beaver Dams

“A study conducted by scientists from the University of Rhode Island recently discovered that beaver dams can help remove up to 45 percent of harmful nitrogen from streams and creeks.”(Potomac, 2016)

Beaver Dams create ecosystems naturally, the pond that is formed behind the beaver’s dam becomes the habitat for aquatic plants and bacteria that absorb and use the nitrates.

Potential Challenges

Each of these options has some potential challenges. Cost and time are among the top factors considered. Building up a mature buffer zone will take many years, as certain trees and plants take years to grow. A man-made buffer zone like the woodchip bioreactor can be costly, they cost $152 US an acre, and only last 10 years.

In regards to changing regulation penalties, it can be extremely challenging to change government regulations; it takes the time to work on a bill and get it passed. The Fertilizers Act is a federal law, there could be extra red tape with the federal government. Issues with people fighting any change for stricter regulations and higher penalties will also arise.

Beaver dams are naturally occurring however they pose a multitude of issues. Flooding can occur and damage to private and public properties. Fish routes can be blocked by dams and those blocked waters temperature can rise to one that is detrimental to fish. So even though dams can help reduce and remove nitrates from the water they can cause more harm than good.

Looking Ahead

On an island like PEI where over 400,000 of 1,398,616 acres is cropland, we need to take the issue of nitrates in the water seriously. If we are not able to prevent nitrates from entering the water and remove the nitrates already in the water the aquatic life will suffer, and the nitrate levels keep building it will eventually start to affect humans as well.

We believe building better buffers is the most important option to invest in. As stated mature buffer zones will take years to develop, however in the short term we should invest in man-made buffers such as woodchip bioreactors. As for a removal solution floating ecosystems can help remove nitrates without causing the same blockages as beaver dams.

About the Team

This report was written by Connor Kelly, Leone Dixon, and Kathryn Clark as a final project for English 381: Professional Writing at the University of Prince Edward Island.


  • Christianson, L., Summerfelt, S., & Vinci, B. (n.d.). Denitrification 'woodchip' bioreactors for treatment of nitrate. Lecture. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from
  • Duval, J. (1997). Cover Cropping in Potato Production (Canada, Ecological Agriculture Projects). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from
  • Environmental Protection Act, §§ E-9-1-25.
  • Farmer, G.K. Around Kinkora Area. Kinkora: Maple Leaf Senior Citizens Club. Print.
  • Floating Island International. (2017). BioHaven Technology. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from
  • Niedziocha, L. (2013, August 16). "How Nitrates & Nitrites Affect Our Bodies". Retrieved April 2, 2017, from
  • Prince Edward Island. (2011, January 25). Beaver Management Policy (Canada, Department of Environment Energy and Forestry). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from
  • Sears, E. (2009, Oct. & nov.). Colourful Cover Crops [Cartoon]. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from
  • South Shore Watershed Association. (n.d.). "Buffer Zones." Retrieved March 30, 2017, from


Created with images by USFWS/Southeast - "Brook trout in cool water" • microbe - "Brudenell River, PEI" • Jeff Hudgins / Alabama - "Beaver Dam" • ken ratcliff - "potato field"

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