Environment Agency water licence reform tops the agenda at Wissey abstractors’ workshop

South Pickenham estate manager Nick Padwick and trainee manager Henry Green, with the drip irrigation system. Picture: Matthew Usher.

South Pickenham estate manager Nick Padwick and trainee manager Henry Green, with the drip irrigation system. Picture: Matthew Usher.


The pressure on water resources within the catchment of the River Wissey – and the long-term strategies for meeting those challenges – were discussed at a farm meeting in west Norfolk.

Abstraction update

Farmers at the meeting were given an indication of how their groundwater abstraction limits could be calculated under new environmental reforms.

Andrew Chapman of the Environment Agency said large areas of the Wissey catchment were at risk of breaching the “no deterioration” policy set out in the Water Framework Directive, if every abstractor used all their licensed water during summer months of low river flows.

With time-limited groundwater licences due for renewal, he said that risk needed to be managed.

“One of the most simple ways of doing that is to cap people to what they have taken during the last six years, but that is not going to provide the flexibility that spray irrigation requires,” he said.

“We recognise that a six-year period is not going to accurately reflect what we have used historically, so we have put together a system where your recent actual use will be based on what you used in the last 25 years.

“We have tried to find a way to manage away the risk of deterioration while trying to allow abstractors to use their historical peak quantities.

“The overall amount of water on your licence will be a total quantity that can be taken over a six-year period, with a separate maximum quantity that can be taken each year.

“It is quite likely that people will still have access to their peak amount in dry years. But what the ‘no deterioration’ policy is telling us is that you probably won’t have access to those peaks for several years in a row.”

Mr Chapman said individual details on post-2018 licences would be sent out in February or March 2016.

Paul Hammett (pictured inset), water resources specialist at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said: “One of the issues in agriculture is that we have a very erratic use pattern with water, depending on the prevailing weather, so it is really important that we have access to peak-year water.

“We all respect the situation that we must not allow the environment to deteriorate, but the loss of this carefully-calculated volume of water that farmers need to get them through drought years can also not be tolerated.

“The agency has moved towards a much more manageable position of recognising how farmers need to use water in dry years. But there are still some details to be ironed out.”

Farmers, land managers and environmental groups also heard more details about proposed licensing changes during the abstractors’ workshop at South Pickenham Estate, near Swaffham.

Estate manager Nick Padwick explained the business’s irrigation policy, and demonstrated the drip irrigation system which had greatly reduced water use for growers on the 7,500-acre arable estate.

The equipment delivers water into a layflat pipe, before it is distributed across the field from the lateral drip pipes in lengths of up to 400 metres.

Compared to traditional spray irrigation, Mr Padwick said the estate had saved on water use and gained the flexibility to irrigate previously-unwatered fields.

Last year, the estate irrigated 188 hectares of potatoes using traditional irrigation at 7.2 acre-inches, but after the £150,000 investment in drip irrigation it is now covering 90 hectares at 4.47 acre-inches.

“We need to be looking at the longevity of what we are doing,” said Mr Padwick. “It allows us to open up land that has never been watered, and it allows us to make better use of water.

“When I came here four years ago we were not using water in the correct way. The equipment was badly maintained and the nozzles were the wrong sizes in the guns. We had windy conditions where the water was blowing all over the place. We seemed to be irrigating the neighbours crops rather than our own. It was not the way I wanted to encourage our growers to come here and invest their money in growing here.”

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