Water security ‘key’ in reformed system

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

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

Farmers’ leaders have warned of the need to produce affordable food in East Anglia as the Government announced its plans for water abstraction reform.

Crops under irrigation.

Crops under irrigation. - Credit: Archant

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has given a cautious welcome to the proposals – but warned there are still challenges to overcome to ensure farmers in East Anglia have the water they need to produce affordable, high quality food.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) warned there will be winners and losers as a result of the planned reform of the water licensing system.

Newmarket-based NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett said it was vital the abstraction reform package was underpinned by measures to store more surplus river water and encourage farmers to construct more reservoirs, including by offering tax incentives.

Many East Anglian farmers rely on abstraction and thousands of licences are in place across the region, which is the driest in the UK.

Mr Hammett said the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) 25 year plan for food and farming, which is due for publication this year, should also recognise the close link between food security and water security.

“There will be 13,000 irrigation licences caught up in the abstraction reform process, the majority of them in East Anglia. The NFU is determined to ensure these farmers and growers obtain a fair share of water to grow our food,” he said.

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Under the proposals set out in the Government report, published this month, existing licences would be replaced with a new abstraction permit with volumes that reflect at least current business use, based on past peak water usage over the last 10 years.

Implementation of the new system is expected in the early 2020s.

CLA East regional director Ben Underwood said it was “critical” farmers had certainty and security of supply.

“There are likely to be winners and losers from the proposed new system. We welcome the ability to store bonus water in water-scarce catchments when flows are high, and the removal of seasonal restrictions. However if unused licence volumes are removed or restrictions imposed based on average usage, farmers will be hit hard. Not only could this damage food production, but also limit the possibility of the expansion of their businesses, affect capital values and leave jobs at risk too,” he said.

The DEFRA report suggests that in water-scarce catchments a new water shares system will be introduced.

“There is a possibility that a share-based trading system could in the longer term see farms priced out the market, and there could be commercial implications for primary producers supplying supermarkets,” said Mr Underwood.

“This is a complex policy development and requires further careful consideration before any changes are made. We will continue to work with Government as part of the Abstraction Reform Advisory Group to ensure the water abstraction system creates certainty of reliable access to water and gives the industry confidence for the future.”

The DEFRA document was in response to the comments it received to its 2014 consultation on the proposed water reforms entitled Making the Most of Every Drop.

Environment Minister Rory Stewart said: “Our water resources can be stretched, even in this rain rich country. This response explains how we will try to balance the interests of all users over decades to come.”

The NFU submitted detailed comments to the consultation and Mr Hammett said it was pleasing to see a number of them recognised in the latest DEFRA proposals.

These included that water volumes transferred from current licences to new permits will be based on peak historic use of irrigated water during dry years rather than ‘average rainfall’ years as originally proposed.

The proposals would also give flexibility to allow farmers to fill their reservoirs whenever river flows are high. This will be an improvement on the current system, which constrains reservoir recharge to defined calendar months

There would also be quicker and easier ways to trade water in some catchments, but with trading rules to guard against any adverse impacts on food security, and an end to so-called ‘section 57 restrictions’ that restrict the access of spray irrigators but not to other users to water during times of drought.

Mr Hammett said the proposals focus on surface water but, in many key irrigated crop growing areas, groundwater was just as important. “It’s still not clear how DEFRA intends to reform our use of groundwater. Disappointingly, opportunities for farmers and growers to relieve pressure on our aquifers by building reservoirs and by trading groundwater among local users seem as distant as ever,” he said.

The Government intends to implement its reforms by the early 2020s. Mr Hammett said the NFU would use the next few years to ensure that government policy, and legislation based on the policy, proceeded at a measured pace to allow businesses sufficient time to adjust and invest in water security and efficiency.

In a parallel announcement, DEFRA has published a consultation on bringing abstraction activities that are currently exempt into the licensing system. A key issue for horticulture is the current exemption afforded to trickle or drip irrigation. Mr Hammett said the NFU welcomed DEFRA’s commitment to apply a ‘light touch’ to bringing it into the licensing system.