Thursday, November 15, 2018

A very British summer…

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under News & Business

Three months without substantial rain highlights the importance of water to farmers, says Melvyn Kay.

If we want confirmation of the unpredictable nature of our weather, we need look no further than this year. North and west England saw an unusually dry spring, yet much of central, eastern, and southern England saw the opposite – wet conditions which severely hampered fieldwork.

Then came May. Rainfall was below average and soil moisture levels began falling. June and July followed with with little or no rain. Meanwhile, high temperatures increased demand for water.

Fortunately, the early rains filled on-farm reservoirs and replenished groundwater reserves. Groundwater and reservoir stocks remain healthy for this time of year. But river flows have fallen and are considerably below average for this time of the year.

The current ‘prolonged dry spell’ raises the spectre of drought and hose pipe bans – particularly in the media. But we cannot say there is not enough water. Rather it is about water supply systems unable to cope with the increased demand.

This is not so much about volume, rather it is about discharge.Pipes and pumps cannot cope with the increased flow rates and at the same time maintain good operating pressures.

Engineering drought

James Dodds, of Envireau Water, has coined the phrase engineering drought to describe our current water supply situation. This is a timely reminder that we have become over reliant on ageing Victorian infrastructure.

The solution is more investment, such as is being planned for in the Water Resources East project. In the short-term, we can reduce the discharge by restricting supply and control demand.

On the farm, droughts happen much ‘faster’ than in public water supply. We are clearly in an agricultural drought. Two weeks without rain can seriously reduce crop yields and quality. Right now, crops are really suffering. But we are definitely not in a water supply drought.

At a meeting of the national drought sub-group on agriculture, the Environment Agency flagged Hands-Off Flow conditions in Yorkshire, West and East Midlands, River Wye, East Anglia, Herts and North London – but not all for  irrigation.

In the east, irrigation has been suspended in the Middle Level system for the first time in 12 years, and spray irrigation licence restrictions apply in several areas. In Suffolk, farm reservoirs filled last winter have been low. Indeed, some have run empty.

Norfolk farmer Tim Jolly reminded the drought group about the need for more reservoirs as the only real way of dealing with future droughts. Fortunately, some growers have already invested in irrigation infrastructure.

Others will be encouraged to do so by this summer’s experience. But this investment brings its own risks as cropping then depends on irrigation and most farms only store water for one season. And in-field equipment is only designed to fill the gaps between rainfall events.

This puts significant strain on pumps and which are now running 24/7 just to try and keep up. At some point, irrigators may need to re-assess the risks and look to longer term investment to reduce them further if the future is more frequent longer and drier spells.

The government must improve investment confidence so that farmers can plan for the next 50 years rather than be at the whims of successive short-term government thinking. People, jobs, and farming all help to make the environment we enjoy and this too requires investment.

In addition to the worries about drought, abstractors must recognise that big changes are afoot as Defra and the Environment Agency seek ways to improve future water resources management for everyone.

Defra has published a plan to reform water regulation by addressing unsustainable abstraction and modernising the abstraction regime. New regulations are now in force which brings exempt abstractions, such as drip irrigation, into the licensing system.

Building on Defra’s catchment-based approach (CaBA) introduced in 2011, Defra wants to build a stronger catchment focus. This will bring together the Environment Agency, abstractors, and catchment groups to take more responsibility for developing local water management solutions.

The Environment Agency aims to test the catchment approach by trialling abstraction reform tools in 10 priority catchments. The first four are the Idle & Torne (East Midlands), the South Forty Foot (Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire), East Suffolk and the Cam and Ely Ouse.

What these changes mean for abstractors is not yet clear. Who will manage the catchments? How can abstractors engage with this process? Will this mean more or less water for food production?

It is too soon to tell exactly. But it is clear that Water Abstractor Groups (WAGs) are going to play an important role in this. There is never a dull moment in the world of water for food.

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