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EXPERT VIEW Abstraction restrictions mean it’s time to take action on irrigation, says Melvyn Kay. Eastern region farmers who irrigate crops are facing 40-60%... Securing your water rights is more important than ever


Abstraction restrictions mean it’s time to take action on irrigation, says Melvyn Kay.

Eastern region farmers who irrigate crops are facing 40-60% cuts to their abstraction licences, according to Water Resources East.

The reductions are a stark illustration that demand for water for food production is under increasing scrutiny, suggests Benny Seaman, chairman of the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors Group in Norfolk.

“You may think your licences are ‘safe’ but be under no illusion, as climate change bites, the environmental demand will increase and your turn will come,” he says.

“It is time to start protecting your water rights, and help is at hand.”

The government’s National Water Resources Framework is meant to help meet the long-term water needs of all sectors. But there is little planning beyond public water supplies for agriculture, energy, industry and environment requirements.

Top table

To address these inadequacies, the Environment Agency commissioned a review to enable more effective multisector resource planning and management.  This is good news for non-public water supply abstractors, who will have a say at the top table.

But sitting at the top table is easier said than done. There are some 12,000 individual agricultural abstractors, many of whom have differing needs. Addressing their needs and requirements at a regional and national planning has proved difficult.

One answer has been to start locally. Fortunately, Water Abstractor Groups (WAGs) willing to work together to secure future water resources for agriculture have been able to build a picture of agricultural water needs from the ‘bottom-up’

WAGs bring unparalleled expertise on water for food security to the planning process. They have proved to be an excellent mechanism for grouping abstractors with shared interests and communicating with the Environment Agency and Defra.

So far, there are 10 WAGs across England, with more on their way. Progress is being made. The Water for Food Group, for example, has already made strong representation to government on behalf of agriculture.

Common cause

Water Abstractor Groups (WAGs) usually form during crises over cuts in abstraction licences when farmers and growers come together in a common cause to solve problems by working together. But more groups are needed to broaden representation.

The existential threat of licence cuts must provide the impetus to strengthen existing groups and create new ones. If this does not happen, the risk is that the government will decide what to do on farmers’ behalf.

Threats are one incentive to form WAGs, but another is funding to provide practical help to secure shared water resources. The Environment Agency is developing a framework to fund WAGs to undertake feasibility studies with follow-up for implementation.

Called Local Resource Options, they include shared farm storage reservoirs, rainwater harvesting, effluent re-use, drainage water use and innovative demand-side initiatives such as water-sharing and trading.

The ideal is for every agricultural abstractor to be a member of a WAG. So the message is clear. Get stuck in, join your local WAG – or form one if it doesn’t exist – and help to secure the your future water requirements.

Melvyn Kay is executive secretary to the UK Irrigation Association. For details, visit

How you can make a difference

Protecting water rights will be a key topic at the UK Irrigation Association Annual Conference on Wednesday, 6 March, in Peterborough.

This is a ‘must attend’ event for all abstractors to hear from top government water resource experts and planners about progress with multisector approaches – including plans to represent abstractors and WAGs in the national planning process.

Full details are available on the UKIA website at Remember, it’s never too late to fix water resources. Working together makes sense. After all, when we are all on a runaway train, it’s in everyone’s interest to fix the brakes.