The Broads faces an urgent 'life or death' emergency due to water abstraction, claimed an environmental campaigner after a new MP reignited the emotive debate by voicing support for farmers.

Eastern Daily Press: Catfield Fen is rated as one of the top wildlife sites in country. Picture: James BassCatfield Fen is rated as one of the top wildlife sites in country. Picture: James Bass (Image: Archant Norfolk © 2013)

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 demands to protect designated habitats and sensitive ecosystems.

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

Newly-elected North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker met with Defra minister Theresa Villiers last week to voice those concerns of growers, and has since argued that although he is "100pc committed" to protecting the environment, he believes current legislation is "unbalanced" as it weighs potential ecological risks without taking account of business incomes.

But Tim Harris, owner of Catfield Fen, said he was "surprised and disappointed" that the MP had taken a position "without apparently looking at all the evidence to understand what's going on".

Eastern Daily Press: North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker has voiced support for farmers in the long-running debate over water abstraction in the Broads. Picture: Victoria PertusaNorth Norfolk MP Duncan Baker has voiced support for farmers in the long-running debate over water abstraction in the Broads. Picture: Victoria Pertusa (Image: Archant)

After becoming concerned that the fen was drying out, Mr Harris fought a costly eight-year legal campaign to stop neighbouring farmers abstracting water - culminating in a three-week public inquiry in 2016 which set the tone for the current review of abstraction licences.

He pointed to a gathering weight of evidence on the impact of abstraction in the Ant Valley, including a report by Natural England last summer which says the 1970s peak in local extinctions of plant and invertebrate species is "most likely to be a result of major groundwater abstractions starting in 1950s-early 70s."

Today, it remains an urgent concern - and Mr Harris also questions why the impact of abstraction is not being investigated fully in other catchments throughout the Broads, given its importance to the region's tourism industry.

"The number one point for people to understand is that this is a life and death issue today," he said. "We cannot just defer the problem. We're being told we can solve this in 30 years, but the fens have not got 30 years.

"There is clearly a serious issue with water abstraction that is reluctantly recognised by the EA and NE. They are trying to find the way with the least pain possible for farmers. But they are faced with reconciling the fact that half the groundwater is being lost because of abstraction. No wonder the Fen is in serious trouble.

"Right up the Ant Valley we have got the same problem. This is supported by the extinctions report. The number one extinction source was extraction.

"The solution is to get the public water supply from somewhere else, and Anglian Water is doing that with its new pipeline from Norwich.

"And as far as agriculture is concerned, the farmers just need to think about their choice of crops - it is not about 'to farm or not to farm'. They used to grow wheat and barley, but now they want to have high value crops like salads and lettuces [which need irrigation]. That gives them 15pc extra margin. If the uniqueness of the Broads, which is part of our biggest industry of tourism, is lost - is it worth that?

"The real question which any objective, informed and responsible observer would now ask is: Given the problems identified at Catfield and throughout the Ant Valley, what is being done to assess the other Broadland river catchments, like the Bure and the Thurne? The obvious inference is that they know/fear what they will find - that these problems exist across the whole of the Broads."

When asked that question, an Environment Agency spokesman said: "The Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme considers the effects of all licensed abstractions affecting the Ant Valley, home to a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other designated sites. The programme started here because of concerns raised about the condition of nearby Catfield Fen.

"Our current proposals affect around 30 abstractors in the Ant Valley. They will be notified of our final decisions later this year. The licence changes we make for the Ant Valley will have wider benefits for other parts of the Broads. All licence holders have the right to appeal if they do not agree with our decisions."

In response to Mr Harris' comments about his support for farmers, North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said he wanted all voices in the debate to be heard.

He said: "I am 100pc committed that the actions we take have to reflect the need to look after our precious environment.

"But the EU legislation does not take account of the threat to the business, so I don't think it is balanced legislation. It only takes account of the environmental factors. We absolutely have to make a commitment to preserving water and the environment, but at what cost to our food producers? At the moment the legislation is at all costs to our food producers and I don't think that's a very sensible approach.

"We need to make sure that any decisions taken are absolutely correct, and we need to listen to all sides. The environment is hugely important to me, buy we still need a sustainable economy."