Irrigation conference: Collaboration is the key to protecting water supplies

Irrigation at GS Shropshire & Sons in the Fens. Picture: Ian Burt

Irrigation at GS Shropshire & Sons in the Fens. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Collaboration between farmers and across sectors will be crucial in ensuring agriculture has a fair share of limited water resources in the future.

That was a key theme from the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA) spring conference, which brought more than 100 delegates to Orton Hall Hotel in Peterborough.

This conference was chaired by north Norfolk farmer Tim Papworth, with speakers including Prof Joaquín Andreu, a resources analyst and former technical director for a river basin agency in Valencia – an arid area of Spain prone to severe droughts.

He said Valencia's water tribunal partnership dated back 1,000 years, operating an 'integrated participatory approach' with scientists, policy-makers and stakeholders working together to consider water rights and set usage priorities in times of shortage.

Henry Leveson-Gower, head of abstraction reform at Defra, said it was a model which could work in the UK.

He said: 'When we publish projections of climate change what they tend to say is that by 2100 our climate will look like Spain or southern France. It might be interesting if we tried to make these links and ask what sort of organisational structures they have in these countries which might be similar to our future climate.

'Spain has taken 1,000 years to develop the institutions to get where they are in a much more extreme situation. But we are trying to set up a framework that is going to be able to adapt over the next 50-100 years.'

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Mr Leveson-Gower said he hoped the Water Resources East Anglia project – a partnership including water companies, local authorities, farming groups and the Environment Agency – could be a starting point.

Defra is planning a shake-up of the licensing regime for water abstraction, aiming to create more long-term resilience to climate change and population growth as well as more short-term flexibility to make the most of available water in response to droughts.

The broad proposals, due to be implemented after 2020, include replacing existing licences with reviewable permits, based on past peak usage of abstracted water over the last 10 years. There would also be greater flexibility to allow farmers to trade water with other abstractors so water could be used where it was needed.

Mr Leveson-Gower said that could open opportunities to negotiate deals with water companies as an insurance policy

'Collaboration is the name of the game,' he said. 'Although farmers can build reservoirs, they probably won't provide the level of resilience that water companies can, because they can build lots of re-use systems which can provide resilience to deal with a three-year drought, which a couple of farms, even the big ones, cannot provide resilience for.

'Where the abstraction reform comes in is the ability to provide the means for the water to get from A to B when you need it. Although short-term trading is about the transaction of moving water to where you need it to deal with some unforseen events and meet your contracts, just because that is a short-term movement of water it does not mean the financial arrangement has to be short-term.

'If you are dealing with a water company you might be paying for water you don't yet need, as an insurance policy. But when you need that extra water, the deal is done up front so you already have that relationship. It is about creating a mechanism to move water to deal with managing risk - and that can be within a long-term contract.'

Sharing water solutions

The role of individual farmers and abstractor groups in reducing risk surrounding water availability was discussed at the conference by a Norfolk grower who built a reservoir in response to the drought of 2012.

Jamie Lockhart is farm manager at Honingham Thorpe Farms, west of Norwich, and also chairman of the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors Group.

During what he called the 'nearly' drought of spring 2012, he was faced with the prospect of telling his customers that he may not have enough water to produce contracted quantities of potatoes, onions and parsnips.

Mercifully, the rains came – but the threat to the long-term sustainability of the business prompted a £600,000 investment in a 195,000 cubic metre reservoir, built the following year to safeguard supplies. Of that total, 40pc came from the Rural Development Programme for England.

But he said he was doubtful whether such a project could be funded today. He outlined a balance sheet for a potato crop which, at current prices, left a margin of just £7.50 per tonne once all seed, fertiliser, sprays, storage and land rental costs were taken out.

'That is what surplus there is to invest in projects, which does not fill you with enthusiasm,' he said.

'We are reliant on many outside factors, and water is the biggest of them. Could we build a reservoir today? On the basis of these prices going forward, it would be a challenge.

'Our reaction post-2012 – knowing how difficult it would have been for us to sit down with our end users and talk about what water was available – was to go ahead and build a reservoir on the farm.

'That was our response, but clearly building reservoirs is expensive and it uses a lot of land. Land is not an abundant resource either.'

Because the 3,500 hectares farmed by his company are in fragmented blocks of land, Mr Lockhart said getting water to where it was needed was also a challenge.

'In those areas we are sharing resources and sharing machinery – I would love to be able to share water better, but in isolation as a business it is very difficult to do,' he said. 'There is a mechanism in place which allows us to share water but in reality it is a very special set of circumstances to enable that to happen. Hopefully as we move on to abstraction reform the opportunity to share water might be greater in the future.'