Water for Food group assesses irrigation prospects for East Anglian farmers

Irrigation system on the Elveden Estate. Picture: Ian Burt

Irrigation system on the Elveden Estate. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Last week's rainfall provided some short-term relief for East Anglian farmers – but experts said it has not changed the underlying shortage in rivers and groundwater.

The current weather situation and irrigation prospects for the months ahead topped the agenda for a Water for Food group meeting hosted by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) with the Environment Agency in Newmarket.

The group assessed the situation in catchments across the country. In East Anglia, it says: 'Despite recent rainfall, soil moisture deficits are already at levels normally found in June.

'Prospects for irrigation are 'moderate', and may change to 'poor' in some places depending on future rainfall. Aquifer levels are below normal but restrictions on groundwater abstraction are unlikely. 'Hands off flow' conditions on some surface water irrigation licences could be invoked during the summer but the use of statutory 'section 57' restrictions is not anticipated.'

NFU water resources specialist Paul Hammett, who chaired the meeting, said: 'Recent rainfall has provided some welcome short-term relief for farmers and growers but, so far, it is too little, too late to transform the longer-term situation.

'River flows and groundwater levels remain at below normal levels for the time of year in many areas. Without substantial rainfall in the weeks ahead, more farmers face the triggering of controls on their abstraction licences to curb their water use. Fortunately, farmers who have invested in reservoir storage will be in a good position because their reservoirs will be full.

'Although groundwater levels are below normal, few restrictions on irrigation from our aquifers are anticipated this year. But while the impact of one dry winter may be modest, farmers are already concerned about the possibility of a second dry winter that could leave them with empty reservoirs and facing widespread controls on groundwater abstraction in 2018.

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'Clearly there is a long way to go before that could happen, but the Water for Food group will be taking steps to monitor developments and to start putting longer term contingency plans in place.'