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Conference debates major changes in the pipeline for farming irrigation

Paul Hammett, water expert from the National Farmers' Union.

Paul Hammett, water expert from the National Farmers' Union.

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Proposed changes to the abstraction licensing system must ensure East Anglian farmers have the water they need to grow the nation’s food, a conference heard.

The irrigation system on the Elveden Estates. Picture: Ian BurtThe irrigation system on the Elveden Estates. Picture: Ian Burt

The UK Irrigation Association (UKIA) conference in Peterborough was told that the current system needed reform, and is hugely reliant on growers being able to renew short-term licences to abstract water from surface and groundwater sources.

Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said the challenge was to create a new system for licensing and managing water abstraction that was “fair, workable and delivered for the public, the environment and for farming”.

He said the NFU welcomed government ideas that would put increased emphasis on water needs in individual catchments and allow for “water trading” between different users.

“There are plenty of opportunities for collaboration and partnerships at the local level, and a wonderful opportunity for existing and new abstractor groups to come into their own,” he said.

“The NFU is keen to test potential opportunities and pitfalls of trading to establish whether catchment plans can deliver more water for food production and reduce water-related risks for agriculture.

“We want to collect farmer and grower views on the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of different ways of systems of trading, getting feedback from abstractors on how it could all work in their local area.”

Mr Hammett said it was important the new system had more flexibility, for example providing opportunities to trap water that would otherwise run out to sea.

Paul Hickey, the Environment Agency’s deputy director for water resources, said the agency would work with organisations including the NFU and UKIA to help meet the long-term needs of agriculture.

As part of its modernisation programme, he said the agency was investing significant sums of money moving away from a paper-based system to a new “digital-first” service. This will allow irrigators to view abstraction licences online.

Licensing abstraction changes will be piloted in four catchments, due to be announced shortly. These will include allowing rapid water trading between different users and using new technology to give irrigators up-to-date information on water levels and river flows.

“We don’t want to be prescriptive. We genuinely want to be receptive to change,” he said.

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