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Farmers urged to ‘health check’ their water licences after a summer of drought

PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 November 2018 | UPDATED: 12:48 25 November 2018

National Farmers' Union water expert Paul Hammett  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

National Farmers' Union water expert Paul Hammett Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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Predictions of drought or water shortages in 2019 may be premature, but farmers still need to take a close look at their abstraction licences for next year, says Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

There are a number of ways abstraction licences can be changed, including extending the reservoir filling season says Paul Hammett   Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSThere are a number of ways abstraction licences can be changed, including extending the reservoir filling season says Paul Hammett Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

The NFU is urging farmers and growers to use the next few months to carry out a “health check” on their abstraction licences to make sure they are fit to meet current needs.

Our call to act comes at the end of a really challenging growing year. In terms of access to water, although aquifer levels and river flows remained at near normal levels, irrigated crops still struggled in terms of both yields and quality.

Any predictions of drought and water scarcity in 2019 would be premature, but the NFU is maintaining regular contact with the Environment Agency through the winter to monitor its ongoing appraisal of the water resources situation and to review its regulatory position formed during this year’s agricultural drought.

This year’s Environment Agency policy of “abstraction licence flexibility” was welcomed by many growers, not least because it signalled a green light for abstractors to actively engage with the agency to discuss options and prospects for licence trading and other innovative options for sustainable water management.

However, while growers warmly welcomed the practice of rapid decision-making, many were frustrated by the agency’s refusal to permit trades of unused headroom, even in water bodies where water sources were at normal levels and the need was very short-term.

Innovative solutions to sustainable water management were particularly hard to find in some of the Broadland catchments, where ongoing investigations into the potential effects of abstraction on important wetland sites continue.

Nevertheless, we would encourage farmers to explore and build on the opportunities provided for licence flexibility
and put in place, sooner rather than later, schemes for the pre-approval of licence trades, even if they are not ultimately needed.

The Environment Agency has developed a mapping tool to help farmers identify other local abstractions, with a view to providing simple information to identify potential trades. This could be an important tool by facilitating pre-approval trades for next season.

Operationally, many farmers are also reviewing their water application methods to ensure they are efficient. Options include improved monitoring of crop needs and investing in new application systems, including trickle irrigation.

All users of trickle irrigation methods must apply for new abstraction licences during this winter and spring and certainly well before the application deadline of 31 December 2019. This includes, for example, potato growers using trickle methods on existing spray irrigation licences which, at least, need to be varied accordingly.

Experiences of this year’s drought are making farmers think carefully about long term planning of water management, with some evidence of renewed interest in co-operation, collaboration and the benefits of local abstractor groups.

An increasing number of farmers are interested in exploring opportunities for closer engagement with public water companies in terms of trading and innovative ways to use available water that might otherwise be wasted.

Opportunities potentially afforded by the agency’s new “digital transition” programme could also be of benefit if the system can be extended to allow abstractors to track river flows real time in relation to their licensed “hands off flow” constraints.

Finally, it’s definitely good practice for abstractors to think ahead by forward planning with the benefit of what has been learnt this year.

There are a number of ways in which licences can be changed, sometimes with fairly minor licence variations approved by the agency that can usefully benefit irrigators during times of water scarcity. These include:

Reviewing the “hands-off flow conditions” on licences more frequently, allowing irrigators to take advantage of any peak flows when significant rainfall occurs

Identifying fast-track water trades and access to additional water with other parties by getting those arrangements pre-approved well before they are needed

Extending the reservoir filling season to permit abstraction outside the normal winter filling period.

Farmers should also check the terms of licences to see if daily volumes, abstraction point and calendar dates for abstraction still fit with how the licence is actually used.

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