Future water issues will require serious consideration

A couple of weeks of much needed rainfall in early May will have helped crops, but will have done relatively little to refill reservoirs and aquifers after a drier than average winter. For the coming season all eyes will be on the Environment Agency’s Updated prospects for irrigation reports, but in the longer term agriculture and horticulture will have to fight harder for a fair share of ever more restricted and valuable water resources.

The AHDB says that the below average rainfall has resulted in many growers adopting ‘water savvy’ techniques early in the year in order to be prepared in the event of another agricultural drought this summer. In England, most regions except for the South-West had less than 50 percent of their (LTA) rainfall in April, with the East of England receiving just 19 per cent of its average rainfall and its irrigation status being downgraded to ‘poor’, along with Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire while other areas fed from chalk aquifers are also under pressure.

In March Sir James Bevan, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency (EA) captured headlines across the country with his speech on ensuring that the country has sufficient water in 2050. His concerns about the effects of climate change on the availability of water and the fact that the supply and demand predictions for water use as a whole are expected to cross sometime around 2040, are unlikely to surprise many growers. However, they will be disappointed by the fact that food production was not mentioned in his speech, despite recent assurances by others in the EA.

Speaking at the Irrigex event at Peterborough in February, Paul Hickey, the EA’s Head of Water Resources, acknowledged the potential inequities in the licensing system. “At a national policy level there has been a lot of work looking at exposure to drought,” he said. “Unless we make some serious interventions, both in terms of tackling demand but also increasing the availability of water resources, those risks will be economically unacceptable.” He also pointed out that in some places, last summer’s drought had brought a new sense of urgency to the required updates in policy: “There were pressures on public water supplies and threats of usage restrictions, and there were some significant impacts on agriculture. One thing that really struck me was the feeling of inequity in the agricultural community – the feeling that they are last in the pecking order for water availability.”

Water security

There is a real worry among many abstractors, particularly those irrigating crops, that the EA is using its current round of consultations to reduce water availability. Whether or not such accusations are true, the farming and food sector needs to work hard to secure its fair share of water in a political and physical environment that is changing rapidly. It is therefore vital that farmers and growers engage with all stakeholders.

NFU Water Advisor Paul Hammett is Chair of the Water for Food Group – a broad alliance of food and farming organisations and other relevant organisations such as ADA and UKIA. “We share a vision of promoting the need for water security in order to deliver food security,” he explains.

“The Group gives us an inside track to be able to talk to Government and the Environment Agency, who are intricately involved in the work of group, to give us some idea of Government thinking on long term water resources and how they can be planned for, particularly in view of the long term weather reports. The mantra for the Water for Food Group is to call for a fair share of water for agriculture and to recognise water for our industry as an essential need.”

As an example of the need for balance he cites the Middle Level catchment where Anglian Water holds a license to abstract water from upstream. In simplistic layman’s terms, water for food production can be diverted into the Middle Level for agriculture as long as the water company doesn’t need it, as it has priority. Last year Anglian Water began discussions on how it might be able to lease water back into the system if required, something Paul describes as, “a major step forward.”

Strategy for Water and Food Production

Another initiative aimed at securing our industry’s access to water is the new 25-year Strategy for Water and Food Production which is currently being compiled by Professor Jerry Knox of Cranfield University in collaboration with a number of stakeholders, including Defra, HTA, NFU and UKIA. This aims to mirror the Water Resource Action Plans produced by the Water Companies in order to fit into a framework which is already familiar to politicians and policy makers.

However, producing such a document is not without its difficulties. “The challenge is that there are many sub-sectors and many thousands of businesses, including SMEs, large agribusinesses and businesses engaged in the supply chain beyond the farm gate,” comments Jerry.

“The farming sector understands water risks, but do the processors, the packers and the retailers genuinely understand the water risks facing the farming sector?” he asked, adding that he welcomed feedback on the process and the document from as many organisations as possible.

“It has to be a strategy that everybody buys into and that presents the important priorities for each sector,” he continued. “If we do nothing we would certainly see a more fragmented and vulnerable sector with more exposure to water-related risks. There is a risk that water could be traded out of agriculture to higher-value uses and there could be a move from high added value production to low input extensive agriculture.”

Such a worst-case scenario can be avoided if the strategy meets its aims:

  • managing current and future demand in abstraction ‘hotspots’
  • addressing environmental challenges linked to over-abstraction and climate change
  • building water infrastructure to provide resilience for farming businesses
  • promoting business growth and supporting multi-sector stakeholder engagement.

Flood management

However, having sufficient water for crop (and livestock) production and food processing is only one part of water management. Preventing and dealing with the aftermath of flooding is an equally important consideration and one that can have equally severe consequences for affected growers.

NFU Vice President Stuart Roberts spoke recently at the Floodex event held alongside Irrigex, and pointed out that drought and flooding are two sides of the same balancing act, and that going forward we need to be better at getting surplus water (flooding) to areas of restricted water availability (drought).

He also pointed out that a lot of agricultural activity and associated water management is already involved in preventing and mitigating the effects of flooding in other areas. “Because of Brexit we have a chance to challenge our traditional thinking and think about how we prioritise things,” he said. “For example, the Fens make up less than four per cent of the agricultural area of this country, yet they produce over seven per cent of the food output of this country and that is only possible because of drainage and the work that’s been done over centuries.

“How we value water, how we move water, how we store water, and how we prioritise water will be more and more important. We talk about drought, but we can easily forget in the short term the issue of floods. Too often we don’t recognise the impacts that flooding has on agriculture.”

With the Environment Agency putting together its Flood & Coastal Change Strategy (which seeks to build flood resistance to 2100 even with the increased risks of flooding from climate change), this is the ideal time to make the case that productive farming does not just need water, but can also play an active and sustainable role in flood management.

Stuart points out that the infrastructure maintained by the Beverley & Holderness Internal Drainage Board not only supports productive agriculture, but prevents all of the catchment’s water funnelling into, and flooding, Hull – a major public good of the sort that Environmental Secretary Michael Gove believes farming should be delivering.

“We have to get [water] up the political agenda,” he stresses, adding that new thinking is required to link drainage and water supply together: “Every day we are putting the equivalent of 22 million litres of water into the sea. We are effectively throwing it away. We need more integrated systems.”

The unique role of the Internal Drainage Boards and their vital work was recognised by EA Director Catherine Wright who also spoke at the event. She pointed out that the latest climate change predictions from the Met Office not only indicate hotter, drier summers and an increased likelihood of drought, but also a greater occurrence of severe rainfall events which will challenge groundwater management and increase the risk of flooding.

“On the coast the challenge is sea-level rise, which by the end of the century could be between half a meter and a meter compared to current levels,” she warned. As a result she stresses that everyone will have to come to terms with a more dynamic and changing world – including land use and availability.

In the nearer term, what can growers do to maximise their water use efficiency and ensure they have sufficient water for crops?

AHDB Water Resources Scientist, Nicola Dunn recently said, “We’d encourage farmers and growers to develop contingency plans and consider options, which could make the difference between a profit or loss situation this summer. Later in the year, savvy techniques will be needed to help businesses get more from the water they have in the worst affected areas.”

Options could include trading water with neighbours (something which needs permission from the Environment Agency) and precision irrigation. In the longer term variety choice and crop nutrition are both likely to play a significant part in grower’s water management strategies.