Dry January prompts water worries for farmers

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

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


A dry start to the year has prompted worries over the future availability of irrigation water for East Anglian farmers – unless the rain returns in the coming month.

At a National Drought Group meeting in London, the Met Office said January rainfall to date is just 4pc of the long-term average (LTA) – potentially the driest start to any year on record.

As a result, the government and its agencies stressed their determination to work with the water industry, farming and environment groups to mitigate the potential challenges of a cold weather snap, dry summer and Brexit.

While most water companies are confident about maintaining water supplies as long as rainfall stays above 60pc of LTA for the next few months, the forecast for agriculture and the environment is gloomier.

In East Anglia, rainfall is also expected to be below average for January, with groundwater levels normal or below normal for time of year – and some of the region’s aquifers are unlikely to return to normal even with average rainfall, said water experts.

Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said soil moisture deficits are increasing at time of year when they should be decreasing, and fears are growing that some rivers will be notably low by the end of May.

He said there is still time for sufficient rainfall to turn the situation around, but summer drought measures are increasingly likely if dry weather persists.

Mr Hammett, who represents the farming sector on the government drought group, said: “To some extent we are not in that much of a different situation as we were at this time last year, but in 2018 we had a significant rainfall in the spring which transformed the situation.

“That could happen again in 2019. We are not pressing the panic button yet. But we have seen from the past six or eight years we have constantly got out of jail just in time.

“The worry is at some point we are not going to have that ‘get out of jail’ card to play – and it could be 2019.

“We have asked government to do all it can to avoid a repetition of last year where domestic supply was unaffected while farmers ran out of water.”

The NFU has tabled a series of requests to Defra and the Environment Agency on the basis of “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst”.

They include a review of licence flexibility, focusing on arrangements to late-fill farm reservoirs when water is available, and exploring opportunities for farmers to take water from public companies like Anglian Water, and understanding how the regulations can be changed to unlock water.

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