A government shake-up of the water abstraction licensing system to meet future water needs must ensure farmers and land managers are fairly treated, the UK Irrigation Authority (UKIA) has warned.

The water abstraction licensing regime system has not changed much since the 1960s and the government believes it is not flexible enough to respond to alternating floods and droughts due to climate change as well as cope with the increasing demand for water.

Currently, about 40% of licences have been granted as a “right” to abstract water. But more recently, the Environment Agency has shifted to issuing fewer licences and they are all on a time-limited basis, which reflects a more cautious approach to water abstraction and managing resources.

DEFRA is due to publish a consultation document in December on proposals to substantially change how water abstraction is licensed. The aim is legislate early in the next parliament.

Henry Leveson-Gower, head of future water resource management policy at DEFRA, is overseeing the consultation.

Melvyn Kay, executive secretary of the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA), is concerned that farmers will be “caught on the back foot” in the negotiations and agriculture will be unfairly treated in the reforms.

“Farmers need to find out what is going on with water abstraction reforms before they take place,” he said.

Mr Kay said he understood the government is looking at a number of reforms, including the possibility of a “real-time” sharing system for water.

He explained: “If in a particular week there was only 80% of the water available that was needed, then everybody would take a 20% ‘hit’. But if the water volume increases, say to 120%, not only can you take more, you can store it in your reservoir.”

According to DEFRA, in England and Wales, less than 2% of total abstractions are taken for direct use by agriculture and horticulture. About three quarters of this is used for agricultural spray irrigation, mostly in the south and east of England.

The UKIA is hosting a conference on this subject – “Changes to your abstraction licence – are you prepared?” – on Monday 4 November, in Orton Hall, Peterborough. For more details visit the UKIA website.

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