9 April 1999

Water rules crackdown

By Isabel Davies

FARMERS abstracting water face tougher rules after a review of controls by the Environment Agency.

Environment minister, Michael Meacher, has announced a package of measures which will see all future water abstraction licences being time-limited, generally to a maximum of 15 years. Existing licences will be also be converted to a time-limited status.

Licences extending beyond the 15-year deadline will still be available to some, at the Environment Agencys discretion. Where licences are likely to be terminated, farmers will be given at least six years notice.

The changes, which are in line with consultation proposals published last summer, will bring nearly all water abstractions and transfers under some form of central control.

Farmers irrigating with trickle and drip systems will no longer be exempt from controls, with operators given two years to apply for a licence.

Compensation for those who have their abstraction licences revoked because of environmental damage will also be brought to an end in 2012.

But small-scale abstraction will be exempt if they fall below locally set thresholds.

"We are not trying to stop abstraction… we have to think less of water being taken for granted and more of water being taken responsibly," said Mr Meacher.

Alan Woods, environment and water adviser at the Country Landowners Association, described the changes as "a mixed bag".

"Removing the exemption for trickle irrigation is fair, but because such systems are more efficient in the use of water then this should be reflected in lower charge rate," he said. The government has indicated that there may be scope for such a move.

Many of the changes will be made within the existing legal framework, and government intends to bring forward any additional legislation as soon as possible.

Giles Phillips, head of water resources at the Environment Agency, said: "These measure are fundamentally important to the way we do our work. At present our control over abstractions is cumbersome and inflexible and in some locations the environment is suffering as a result."

Farming accounts for about 6% of all water abstracted each year.

Irrigation fears in East Anglia

FURTHER restrictions on irrigation will damage business viability, say farmers in East Anglia.

The governments decision to give the Environment Agency greater powers to control the abstraction of water for irrigation will, say the regions producers, affect crop quality and could hit farm viability.

Many in the region – the driest in Britain – have invested heavily in irrigation systems for water-dependent crops, such as potatoes and sugar beet.

For some time the Environment Agency has been exerting pressure to reduce demand. In some areas, new abstraction applications have been rejected.

Some farmers in East Anglia, in sensitive environmental areas, have already been required to commission independent environmental impact assessments before licences are renewed.

Now the government plans to give the agency powers to control water resources more effectively, including the imposition of new restrictions on abstraction and time limits on existing open-ended licences.

Richard Wrinch, a partner in a 303ha (750-acre) arable farm at Shotley, in Suffolk, near an internationally designated wetland wildlife site, said considerable investment had been made in irrigation and new technology aimed at making the best use of the water available.

That had enabled the farm to extend the area of land under irrigation without using more water.

While the licensing system needed reform because there were too many "inconsistencies", further restrictions on businesses such as his own would affect crop quality and could mean that certain crops could no longer be grown.

"If they cut down further on water usage it will create a major problem for a lot of farms in this region," said Mr Wrinch.

He described the licensing system as hit and miss. "Some farmers get plenty of water, others cant get any. It needs to be sorted out."

Alternative ACCS

THE group of Midlands-based farmers which is challenging the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme is to set up an alternative assurance scheme.

The group, led by Midlands farmers Michael Cook, Bay Harper, Peter Morton and Paul Turney, claims to have overwhelming support for their anti-ACCS campaign (News, Mar 26).

The farmers are now developing a producer-controlled, non-profit making organisation capable of verifying production standards on crop and livestock enterprises.

The groups believes ACCS standards go beyond beyond the level needed to assure consumers.

Anyone interested should call 01604-862486.

These 320 Mule and Charollais x Mule gimmers owned by Joe and John Harris, Brackenburgh Estate, Calthwaite, Penrith have been grazing this 10.3ha (25-acre) block of stubble turnips since mid-January. The gimmers, which are getting 0.6kg (1.5lb) of concentrate plus silage and a fresh 1.3m (4ft) strip of turnips each day, will be moved inside this week ready for lambing.