Will farmers have enough water to irrigate crops as aquifers fall to historic lows?
PUBLISHED: 14:59 12 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:11 12 September 2019
Farmers fear they could face restrictions on irrigating their crops next year as lack of rain puts East Anglia's supplies under pressure.
Paul Hammett, the National Farmers' Union's national water expert, has contacted farmers warning them that tights controls can't be ruled out for next year.
Mr Hammett, who met with the Environment Agency on Tuesday, September 10, to review the situation on water availability, warned that farmers wanting to refill their depleted reservoirs over winter might also face problems.
MORE - East Anglia's farmers are 'still dealing with effects of 2018 summer drought'
"With aquifers in East Anglia falling to near historically record low levels, the Environment Agency is increasingly concerned about irrigation prospects for 2020," he said.
Although the situation could clearly change between now and next spring if there is plentiful rain, section 57 restrictions on both surface water and groundwater next year could not be ruled out, he warned.
"We agreed to maintain close contact over the next few months to monitor the situation and the implications it could have for irrigated crop production.
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"As the current growing season comes to an end, 'hands off flow' surface water constraints are in place on a number of licences across East Anglia."
Section 57 restrictions are already in place on licences on the Essex rivers Upper Chelmer and Colne - where 50% of licensed volume restrictions are active - and the Stour, where there is a full ban in place. The rivers Yare and Tas in Norfolk are under constant review.
"The Environment Agency's flexible licensing arrangements mean that abstractors can apply to abstract water to fill reservoirs before the start of the 'winter fill' season on October 31," he said.
"However the reality is that, where river flows are falling, there is unlikely to be sufficient water available to allow abstraction for some time. The Agency will consider applications on a case by case basis."
Farmers in fenland areas are more likely to be able to abstract, where water can be used while Internal Drainage Boards are gearing up to pump water out of their systems, he said.
The NFU has asked for a clearer and more transparent determination process for the licences, and says the agency has promised to review and publish its updated guidance on the issue.
The Environment Agency has felt less able to offer flexible licensing arrangements in 2019 compared to 2018, partly as a result of lower aquifer levels this year, said Mr Hammett.