Campaigners are calling for a wider review of water abstraction licences across the Norfolk Broads after a leading environmental lawyer said the current localised approach "cannot be legally justified".

Farming abstraction licences in the Ant Valley are under threat as an Environment Agency (EA) review seeks to realign the balance between commercial, domestic and environmental water demands to protect designated habitats and sensitive wildlife.

Some farmers in the area claim they could lose revenue worth tens of thousands of pounds a year if they are unable to access water to irrigate their crops.

But the scope of the review should be much wider and more proactive said Tim Harris, owner of Catfield Fen, whose eight-year legal campaign to stop neighbouring farmers abstracting water set the tone for the current licensing shake-up.

Mr Harris sought a legal opinion from Stephen Tromans QC, one of the country's leading environmental lawyers, which he has sent to EA chief executive Sir James Bevan.

It says the EA has a legal duty "to take appropriate steps to avoid damaging European sites, not to wait to for evidence to be presented to it of damage having taken place", and that it is "already fully aware that abstraction is threatening wider areas".

Mr Tromans concludes the current Restoring Sustainable Abstraction (RSA) exercise, as it only assesses three of the many SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) which underpin protected designations across the Broads, is currently "limited in ways which cannot be legally justified".

Mr Harris has asked for an assurance that the EA will "progress immediately" with a wider and more proactive review of abstraction licences "in compliance with its legal duties".

"Any normal person faced with this issue which says abstraction has a proven link with the deterioration of Catfield Fen, and probably up the whole Ant valley, would then be saying it cannot possibly be happening in just one river system," he said. "We must look at all the river systems in the Broads. The Thurne, the Bure, all of them.

"They (the EA) have the tools and information to do that. They have a very sophisticated model and they should run that model for the whole of Broadland to see where the shoe pinches.

"There is this whole list of places they should be looking at proactively but the reason they don't is they fear they know what they are going to find, and the consequences of that is something they don't want to contemplate. It is the elephant in the room. It is difficult, but they have a legal obligation to do it."

Eastern Daily Press: The Norfolk Broads is an important area for both nature conservation and food productionThe Norfolk Broads is an important area for both nature conservation and food production (Image: Mike Page)

An EA spokesman said the agency would respond to the legal opinion and Mr Harris' letter "in due course", and pointed to the many collaborative projects aiming to improve water quality and availability across the Broads, including river restoration and silt trapping, as well as trials on natural flood management schemes and ways to minimising the impact of saline intrusion from the North Sea through the management of water levels.

“Our work on water resources over the last 15 years has improved our understanding of waterways and wetlands in the region and will be reflected in our licensing decisions now and in the future," they said.

“Increasingly, we will be looking for opportunities to work with other public bodies and non-governmental organisations, such as Water Resources East, through the Broadland Catchment Partnership, to improve the water environment in this part of East Anglia.

“We will continue to engage with abstractors, environmental groups, and other interested parties to ensure we reach the best outcomes possible.

“We work closely with Natural England to achieve the conservation objectives they specify for protected sites while undertaking our regulatory functions.”

Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: “Irrigated agriculture in the Broads is a sector of local and strategic importance. This part of Norfolk alone provides 5pc of our national fruit and vegetable output, while maintaining exceptional levels of environmental protection.

“The NFU’s priority remains to secure a fair and equitable solution for the 240 abstraction licences currently under review in the Broads – a process that has left farm businesses in limbo for the past two years.

“We are keen to work with the Environment Agency, water companies, environmental groups and others to find long-term solutions. Collaboration and cooperation, not legal confrontation, is the best approach."