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Farmers' water worries deepen as irrigation prospects downgraded to 'poor'

East Anglia's summer irrigation prospects have been downgraded to 'poor'  by the Environment Agency. Picture: Tudor Morgan-Owen

East Anglia's summer irrigation prospects have been downgraded to 'poor' by the Environment Agency. Picture: Tudor Morgan-Owen

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Summer irrigation prospects have been downgraded to "poor" in East Anglia, deepening farmers' concerns about possible restrictions on water use during a crucial time in the growing season.

Paul Hammett, water specialist for the National Farmers' Union. Picture: Sarah Lucy BrownPaul Hammett, water specialist for the National Farmers' Union. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

The latest assessment comes despite this week's welcome deluges, including 15.4mm of rain on Wednesday which forecasters at Norwich-based Weatherquest said made it the wettest day in the past 12 months.

But while that water brought some short-term relief to the region's farms, the Environment Agency's revised irrigation prospects report contains gloomier news, following a dry April in which East Anglia received just 19pc of its average rainfall.

It says the cumulative rainfall total for the past 12 months has been the fourth lowest for East Anglia since records began in 1910, at 71pc of the long-term average.

As a result of the rainfall deficit in April, it says river flows and groundwater levels have started to decrease in most areas, with 75pc of flow sites and 73pc of groundwater sites classified as notably low or lower. River flows on the Waveney and Upper Ouse are among those rated exceptionally low.

An irrigator working hard in a very dry field near Ixworth.An irrigator working hard in a very dry field near Ixworth.

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Prospects for the region are now graded as "poor", which describes a situation where water levels are well below average, where soil moisture deficit is developing early and where significant restrictions on abstraction are probable.

NFU water resources specialist Paul Hammett said although aquifer levels could become a serious issue in 2020 without significant rainfall, restrictions from groundwater sources have been largely ruled out this year.

But for river abstraction, he said licensed-backed restrictions are likely to be implemented earlier than usual, and the imposition of emergency "section 57" restrictions on spray irrigation cannot be ruled out for the region's more sensitive rivers.

READ MORE: Easter heatwave deepens Norfolk farmers' drought fears

"During the 2018 agricultural drought, the Environment Agency responded positively to requests from the NFU and others to adopt a 'flexible licensing' position which allowed, for example, groundwater to be rapidly traded between neighbours in some parts of the region," said Mr Hammett.

"Licensing flexibility will still potentially be available to irrigators this season but it may be difficult to deliver this in practice where groundwater levels are, without the spring rainfall that was so beneficial last year, likely to remain notably low."

Norfolk NFU chairman Nick Deane, who is based in Hoveton, said while there is no need for panic, farmers should consider their priorities, such as whether it is worth irrigating cereals or if water would be better kept for higher-value potato crops.

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