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Drought-hit East Anglian farmers braced for 'probable' EA water restrictions

A field of potatoes being kept watered by irragation.; Picture: James Bass

A field of potatoes being kept watered by irragation.; Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

Drought-hit farmers in parts of East Anglia are bracing themselves for a potentially disastrous growing season after warnings that abstraction restrictions were "probable" unless significant rainfall comes soon.

The last six months have been the driest since records began in 1921, prompting Anglian Water to issue a hosepipe ban for its domestic customers beginning on April 5.

Farmers welcomed the ban, but said they are also facing up to the prospects of enforced water restrictions this spring or summer.

The Environment Agency (EA) released an updated drought prospects report this week which says drought management actions, such as ‘hands off flow’ restrictions and section 57 irrigation bans, are probable throughout parts of eastern England, particularly if there is below average rainfall over the coming months.

EA officers and farming leaders are working together to encourage voluntary restrictions, flexibility in licensing agreements and possible extensions of the March 31 deadline for filling winter storage reservoirs to take advantage of any forthcoming rainfall.

But some farmers warned of a disastrous season if formal restrictions are enforced, particularly for water-hungry potatoes and sugar beet, and late-season crops like carrots and lettuces.

Rob Parker is a farm manager with East Coast Growers, which produces 15 million lettuces a year, many of them in East Norfolk’s coastal climate between Great Yarmouth and Bacton. As his growing season finishes in mid-November, he is very concerned about the possibility of abstraction restrictions later in the year.

“If we don’t water them, they don’t get to a saleable size, so we are in a situation where, if restrictions come in, it would be a case of not growing a crop this year,” he said. “It is a whole farming business which could be affected at the flick of a switch. We are greatly reliant on water and decisions are being made on abstraction which is pivotal for my business. We are already growing a lot of these crops under glass, so the production cycle is already in full swing. If restrictions come in and we run out of water my business would have to look for a new strategy or somewhere else to grow those lettuces.”

The EA drought report says: “River flows and groundwater levels are unlikely to recover and will pose significant risks to spring planting and subsequent summer abstraction. Those farmers relying on refill of winter storage reservoirs to the normal levels to irrigate crops later in the year, will be hit hard. Spray irrigation prospects currently look much less favourable for this time of year than they have for several years, particularly in East Anglia. This will significantly impact on food production.

“Continued dry weather could also increase risks to supplies of drinking water for livestock, particularly housed pigs and poultry. The EA and NFU are working with water companies to ensure there are emergency plans in place for this eventuality.”

Ian Pearson, senior environment planning officer for the EA’s eastern region, said the agency was keen to be as flexible as possible in making temporary variations to licences to help farmers make the best use of any available water.

“We are looking for voluntary restrictions at the moment,” he said. “If that doesn’t have the response we are looking for we have the ability to apply formal restrictions on abstraction activities. None of us want to do that, but whether or not we need to depends entirely on rainfall.

“As a generality, depending on the weather and rainfall, formal restrictions could kick in as early as June, or they might not kick in until as late as October. But each catchment will be different, and we have just got to wait and see what happens.

“We are required by the regulations we work within to ensure the environment is protected, and we already work within minimum criteria. We shouldn’t allow abstraction to continue right up to the point where fish start dying.”

Paul Hammett, the NFU’s senior policy advisor for East Anglia, said: “In the short term, it is a coping strategy.

As the weeks go by without much rainfall to talk about, the prospect of some form of restriction in some areas is going to be when, not if. Our job then becomes one of keeping the impact of those restrictions to a minimum.

“For example, in the River Lark catchment in West Suffolk, a group of abstractors have decided this week they would voluntarily reduce the amount of water they are legally allowed to abstract by 20pc in the hope that they can avoid a total ban.

“It is sacrificing water now in the hope they can keep something in the system for the whole growing period of their crops. It is very creative and quite responsible because farmers recognise the environmental impact of water shortages, and they want other industry sectors to follow suit.”

The EA report recommends that abstractors adopt a policy of “share, conserve and adapt” to help spread out dwindling water resources.

It suggests looking for ways to share water, such as setting up water abstractors’ groups, making contingency plans, improving water efficiency by checking for leaks and consulting with the EA as soon as possible to discuss ways to avoid enforcement action.

Andrew Alston, of the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors Group (BAWAG) which represents more than 180 licensed abstractors, said the prospects for irrigation this year were poor.

“We did not create this problem, but farming is at the forefront of any drought,” he said. “We know that the prospects for irrigation this year are poor and my advice to anyone in a stressed catchment area like the Wensum, Stiffkey and Glaven is to grow 80pc of their normal irrigated crops this year. It is better to grow 80pc well rather than 100pc poorly. They should also think about cutting back on late-season irrigated crops like carrots as we cannot guarantee there will be water for them.”

Norfolk NFU chairman Francis Ulrych, who farms at Griston, near Watton, said: “Everything hinges on the amount of rain we get. If we get regular rain throughout the spring and summer, those who don’t irrigate will be saved. If we don’t get that, and we have a repeat of last year, we are in trouble.”

Mr Ulrych said he did not irrigate his own wheat and barley as the cost was not justified as it would be for those growing water-hungry crops like potatoes or sugar beet.

“We had rain through June and July last year that really saved the sugar beet crop and gave us record figures,” he said. “But if that rain had not come at the right time, it would probably have been a disastrous crop. But I am optimistic we are going to get some rain – nature has a habit of balancing itself out.”

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