Hope for best but plan for worst, drought summit told

EAST Anglia’s farmers are being urged to hope for the best but plan for the worst as the threat of water restrictions continues to loom over the 2012 growing season.

A drought summit at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) regional headquarters at Newmarket on Tuesday heard that irrigation restrictions are highly likely during the 2012 growing season unless there is above average rainfall in the next few months.

Many rivers in East Anglia are flowing at just one-fifth of their average rate, groundwater levels are continuing to drop and soils remain dry.

The Environment Agency’s Bob Hillier, who met with farmer representatives from different parts of the region, said December’s rainfall had been about average but so far January had only had received around one third of its average and the longer term forecast was for drier weather for the next couple of months.

He said everyone, including the public, had a part to play in reducing demand and conserving supplies. Options open to irrigators include entering voluntary agreements to abstract less water, sharing water with neighbouring farms and trading water with other farmers.

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“We need information from farmers about their own water needs and we are working with the water companies. It’s about demand management and emphasising that everyone needs to use water efficiently. Drought is top of our radar at the moment,” he said.

Lark Abstractors chairman Lindsay Hargreaves said: “These are local issues requiring local solutions. It’s up to us to take responsibility and try and move things forward.”

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The meeting was the first of three planned by NFU East Anglia to help growers through the critical late winter and early spring period.

Farmers told the agency they urgently needed to know what the worst case scenario would be in their catchment so they could decide what to grow. In some cases they might decide to reduce their acreage of irrigated crops.

NFU senior policy adviser Paul Hammett said the River Stour area in Essex, West Suffolk and around the River Wensum in Norfolk were key areas of concern.

“We have not got enough water and things are looking quite serious, but we can bounce back, depending on the rainfall we get,” he said.

Peter Youngs, Group Manager, East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group, said the situation along the Suffolk coastal area was better than in areas such as Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, and he was hopeful that it would escape restrictions.

It was “hopefully not disastrous” , he said, and given a bit of rain from now on, he felt farmers in his area should be ‘OK’. Around 20% of their abstraction came from rivers, he said.

“Fortunately, we ahve had more rainfall here than central areas and our rivers have picked up a bit,” he said.

Another 20% of their water came from irrigation winter storage reservoirs and most believed by the end of March these would be full.

The remaining 60% came from ground water, mostly from the Suffolk Crag, a sandy deposit stretching from the A12 to the coast, with the water taken out of boreholes and well points.

“I reckon, because I measure it, it’s about 40% full compared to the lowest recorded of 1996/97 drought and the highest recorded of 2002. Hopefully there won’t be any restrictions from that,” he said.

He understood that any restrictions were more likely to apply to ‘hot-spots’.

“We are feeling fairly optimistic for the coming season. We realises we have got to treat water with respect and you use it judiciously but we are hopeful we will get through the season OK without significant reductions.”

The Agency said it is looking to provide as much information as possible about how different rainfall levels could affect the introduction of restrictions within particular catchments.

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