Irrigation forecast deepens water worries for East Anglian farmers

The Environment Agency says spray irrigation prospects in East Anglia this summer are 'moderate to m

The Environment Agency says spray irrigation prospects in East Anglia this summer are 'moderate to moderate/poor'. Picture: Phil Morley

A dry start to the year has deepened concerns over East Anglian farmers' ability to irrigate their crops this summer.

The Environment Agency (EA) has published its initial forecast for irrigation prospects across key crop-growing catchments, and the results were shared with visitors to the Irrigex exhibition and conference in Peterborough.

The report says a slow start to the recharge period and a dry January mean the overall summer prospects for water availability for spray irrigation in East Anglia are currently rated as 'moderate to moderate/poor'.

Under 'moderate' conditions, the EA says some controls of abstraction from rivers and groundwater sources are possible by midsummer, while a 'poor' scenario is defined as: 'Soil moisture deficit is developing early and significant restrictions on abstraction from surface and groundwater are probable.'

Paul Hammett, the National Farmers' Union's water specialist based in Newmarket, urged growers to monitor irrigation prospect announcements from the Environment Agency as they are updated in the months ahead.

'A return to wet weather conditions could still turn the situation around, but summer drought measures are increasingly likely if dry weather persists, and time is running out to fill farm reservoirs,' he said.

READ MORE: Michael Gove told: Loss of water licences would 'destroy' Norfolk farmsAndrew Blenkiron is estate director at the Euston Estate, near Thetford, where irrigation is vital to grow high-value crops on the free-draining sandy soils of the Brecks.

He said although there was some anxiety about the prospects for the summer, the farm had been able to guard against the risk of drought by building a £400,000 new reservoir five years ago, adding 80m gallons to its existing 110m gallons of storage capacity for water abstracted during the wetter winters.

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'We are a bit nervous,' he said. 'We have got to wait another two weeks before we make any cropping decisions but, thankfully, because we invested heavily in the extra reservoir, we actually finished last season with some water in stock.

'We have been able to abstract at a very low rate since mid-December, which has given us the majority of what we need for this season – but I do know people in an unfortunate position who have not been able to put any water in at all.'

• Farmers are also being encouraged to take part in the NFU's 2019 Dry Weather Survey to help inform forthcoming discussions with government ministers and agencies.