Did you know that UK law does not consider water for food production an essential use of water during drought situations? This means that when water supplies run low, the Environment Agency can place restrictions on agricultural abstraction before hosepipe bans on households.
During the drought of summer 2022, this situation played out as farmers and growers faced water restrictions before households did. The Environment Agency (EA) served Section 57 notices – which legally restrict the amount of water that spray irrigators can abstract from rivers by 50%, ramping up to a possible 100% restriction – on irrigators in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk in August 2022, yet Anglian Water had not imposed any restrictions on mains water use.
Water for Food Group
The industry-led Water for Food Group (WfFG) is an alliance of food and farming organisations focused on abstraction and use of water. One of its key goals is to get water for food production recognised as an essential use during drought situations. It was established in 2012 to coordinate the sector’s response to the 2011/2012 drought, and has remained active since.
The CLA is a member of the WfFG, alongside the NFU, various water abstractor groups in East Anglia, the British Trout Association, AHDB, the UK Irrigation Association, the Horticultural Trades Association, the Fresh Potato Suppliers Association, and others. The EA participates in the group, and Defra representatives attend it to understand the industry perspective.
The group provides a forum for industry groups to collaborate and raise the political visibility of agricultural water resources. Water for agriculture has not been on the political agenda for many years. Recently, however, lobbying by the CLA and other WfFG members has brought agricultural water security into focus at the highest levels of government.
At the Farm to Fork Summit, held at No. 10 in May, the prime minister committed to three pledges on water security. The government will:
- “make abstraction licence decisions more flexible to support changing needs of farmers, the economy and the environment in the context of climate change.”
- “create national and regional water resource management plans for agriculture, that will help farmers plan their water resources and ensure better resilience to drought.”
- “support farmer-led groups to identify local water resource schemes, building on the success of projects like Felixstowe hydrocycle [sic]”.
These commitments are valuable but vague. The government needs to turn them into clear actions to support the sector, and this is a priority for the CLA and WfFG in our ongoing lobbying.
Water resources resilience team
Through the WfFG, we know that the EA has formed the new Water Resources Resilience Team, which will assess water needs in the non-public water supply sectors.
The first round of regional water resources planning, which is currently concluding, has not achieved its aim to holistically plan water for all sectors. The current governance and funding arrangements of regional water resources groups have meant that water companies dominated them. Recognising the poor inclusion of agriculture into regional plans, the new EA team has contracted two projects to evaluate the governance and funding of regional water resources planning, particularly focused on ensuring agriculture achieves better representation in the next planning round. The CLA has already provided input to the governance review, and will engage further through the WfFG.
Developing water resource management plans
Separate to government policy, the WfFG is developing step-by-step guides to help farmers and growers develop agri-food water resource management plans and drought plans. These plain-English guides will help members to plan long-term investment into water infrastructure and facilitate discussions over abstraction with regulators, water companies, and neighbours. They will hopefully complement the national and regional plans that the prime minister announced at the Farm to Fork Summit.
Long-term investment in water infrastructure often takes the form of a farm reservoir, but constructing farm reservoirs is currently far from a simple process. For a comprehensive guide to planning farm reservoirs, please refer to the CLA’s advisory handbook ‘CLA89 – A guide to on-farm reservoirs’.
Barriers to their construction include planning permission, abstraction licencing and economic viability. The CLA has repeatedly raised these barriers with Defra and its agencies, leading to an announcement in Defra’s ‘Plan for Water’ for a call for evidence on planning barriers to farm reservoir construction.
The Plan also expressed an “aim to increase the amount of water stored by the agriculture and horticulture sectors by 66% by 2050”, which opens the door for continued dialogue on how the government can help the industry with farm water storage. For instance, clarity on how the government intends to make agricultural water supplies more climate resilient was notably absent from the government’s plan on climate adaptation (the National Adaptation Programme #3), which was published this week.
Finally, the WfFG offers a forum for the EA to update the agricultural sector on abstraction reform. The next stage of proposed abstraction reform is to transition abstraction licences into abstraction permits, with stricter rules on who can operate the permit and who is liable for breaches – a policy known as the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) for abstraction and impounding.
The CLA has not seen the final policy, which the EA finalised following a consultation (see the CLA’s response here), but we understand that it is now with Defra to pass into law. On the current timeline, Defra will start the legislative process for the EPR before spring 2024, which means that implementation will be summer 2024 at the earliest. The CLA continues to follow this policy closely. For more information, please see CLA guidance note GN32-22: Abstraction reform.
the WfFG has made great headway in the last 18 months in raising the political visibility of agricultural water resources and opening the door for constructive dialogue with government. The larger goal of getting agriculture recognised as an essential water user during drought is still in view.