East Anglia: Farmers celebrate late rain

EAST Anglia’s drought-hit farmers are delighted by recent heavy rainfall which has allowed many of them to replenish their reservoirs - partially at least.

Farmers are normally only able to abstract water into their reservoirs to the end of March, but following a series of meetings hosted by the National Farmers’ Union at its Newmarket offices, those affected have been given extensions to their winter abstraction period.

Drought-affected farmers in parts of the region have already agreed to a voluntary 20% decrease in their water use, and as a result, many have planted less water-hungry vegetable crops than normal. As these are more profitable, this will hit their revenues for this year. Farmers wanting to abstract water have to talk to the Environment Agency individually.

But the recent heavy rainfall, just before the winter deadline, has been an unexpected boon, and should help to ensure healthy crops this year, farmers say.

Brian Finnerty, regional National Farmers’ Union spokesman said: “Because river levels have been so low some farmers have been prevented from taking water to fill their reservoirs during the winter – these are known as hands off flow conditions on abstraction licences.

“Their licence to abstract normally runs out on March 31 as well. As it was so dry, this meant that some reservoirs were only 20% full at the end of the normal abstraction period.

“During our series of regional drought meetings we urged the Environment Agency (EA) to be flexible, so that if river flows improved farmers could abstract water after March 31 to fill reservoirs. The EA has been allowing farmers to do this where river flows allow and it has been a huge help for irrigators.

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“If anyone still needs to fill their reservoir and hasn’t contacted the EA as yet, we would urge them to do so and ask for a special dispensation. In future we would like this flexibility built into long-term drought planning.”

However, he also pointed out that too much rain could be causing difficulties to some farmers by preventing them getting on wet fields to plant crops.

Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the Euston Estate near Thetford, said because of an extension to its winter abstraction period granted to midnight tonight, the estate had already been pumping water into its reservoirs at a low rate.

Since Thursday, with the heavy rains, they had been pumping “flat out”, he says,

“The river levels in the early part of last week were running at 300 litres a second and on Thursday its stepped up to 15000 litres per second. That means we can pump at a dramatically increased rate,” he explained.

The estate’s reservoirs, which were down to about 55 to 60% full in early March, were now around 75% full, he said.

“We are never going to get their this spring. The winter abstraction period formally ends tonight and we do have some summer abstraction licence faiclity but the flow rates have to be pretty phenomenal,” he said.

But he added; “The benefit of the derogation through April has been phenomenal. That’s really saved the day. It’s allowed us to put 20 million gallons (nearly 100m litres) we would not have been able to. That’s sufficient water to water about 120 acres of potatoes through a very dry season.”

The knock-on effect for the estate is that it will not now have to buy water from a neighbour.

“It’s given me water security for this season. We are going to have sufficient now to irrigate the crops we plant but we have still to reduce by 20%.”

However, turnover at the estate will be down this year as a result of an earlier decision to reduce the amount of water-hungry crops planted by a fifth, to bring it in line with the agreed reduced water usage.

The region remains in environmental drought, in spite of the heavy rainfall over recent days, the Environment Agency says.

Richard Thompson, water resources manager, said: “Although there was lots of rain at the weekend and during April as a whole, it will take several weeks for the water to trickle through to groundwater and only then will we have accurate picture of how much recharge there has been. The rain we’ve had has been great for the environment and has helped farmers too.

“As we are entering the fast growing season and as the weather warms-up, if the rain stops we could still see rivers and soil dry out again quickly. So it is important that restrictions remain in place until we are certain that groundwater levels are properly restocked.

“In the future our rainfall is expected to become less predictable. Even when this drought ends it’s important that we all look at how we can be as water efficient as possible to help manage future droughts. We need to be equally prepared that heavy downpours could increase our risk of flooding and are ready for that too.”