East Suffolk features in new water abstraction plan

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

Paul Hammett, water expert from the National Farmers' Union. - Credit: Archant

Water resources in East Suffolk will be under the spotlight in the new year, as it has been selected as one of four national pilot catchments in a new government water plan.

Crops being irrigated at Dale Farm, Wantiston Hall.

Crops being irrigated at Dale Farm, Wantiston Hall. - Credit: Archant

The water abstraction plan is designed to demonstrate the ongoing commitment of Defra and the Environment Agency to delivering as much progress as possible on the way we manage water.

The plan confirms how government will make full use of existing regulatory powers and describes approaches to address unsustainable abstraction.

In selecting East Suffolk, the Government is clearly keen to build on existing momentum developed over the past five years, where local interest groups have been working together on ways to cope with both flooding events and long spells of dry weather.

The aim is to harness this partnership approach and develop site-specific solutions to existing pressures.

An irrigator working hard in field near Ixworth.

An irrigator working hard in field near Ixworth. Picture: TUDOR MORGAN-OWEN - Credit: Archant

With Dr Therese Coffey MP in charge of the reform package, in her role as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) water minister, it is fitting that the plan should feature her own constituency.

Through their local abstractor group East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group (ESWAG), farmers are already working with Suffolk County Council, the Environment Agency and others to identify and implement measures to manage water for environmental, water resource and flood risk management purposes. Opportunities for shared reservoir storage are being explored as well.

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At the same time, Anglian Water is looking at opportunities in the Deben catchment to recharge the aquifer during the winter and then sell the treated water to farmers during the irrigation season.

It will be interesting to see how much of a boost can be given to these projects by their recognition in a national plan.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has consistently supported the idea of abstraction reform but it has always sought assurances that the business upheaval caused by major rule changes would be kept to a minimum.

As such, the abstraction plan’s focus on partnership working at local level is to be welcomed. The NFU will be keen to test the proposed catchment plan approach, to establish whether it can deliver more water for food production.

Meanwhile, the plan confirms that abstraction licences will be transferred into the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR), designed to bring various activities carried out by a business all together under one permit.

Moving irrigation licences across to EPR permits sounds expensive and potentially complicated. DEFRA has promised more consultation, possibly in 2019, on the introduction of EPR before it introduces secondary legislation to deliver it.

In the longer term we can expect a major review of abstraction charges, but no date has yet been given for this.

In the meantime, the plan warns that irrigators face more controls on their licences to protect the environment, particularly in the case of abstractions from rivers at low flows.

The Government wants to support the rapid trading of water between users where it is needed most, to allow abstractors to share access to water quickly, and it will be interesting to see if this idea will fly in practice.

The plan will allow some winter abstractors to take water at the highest flows in the summer to boost the use of stored water, surely a sensible use of surface freshwater that would otherwise just run out to sea.

The plan includes some innovative ideas for sharing real-time information on river flows and forecast changes to help abstractors plan their water use.

The Government’s original intention was to deliver abstraction reform through an act of Parliament, but that idea has been kicked into the long grass because of the business of Brexit.

For those of us who expected to be examining legally drafted documents designed to deliver abstraction reform by now, the lower key and voluntary approach signalled by the abstraction plan seems attractive.

Let’s hope that real progress can be made over the next few years to deliver a secure supply of water to farmers, so they can grow our food.