Irrigation rules could be reformed to allow farmers to take advantage of climate change and abstract more water during wetter summer months.

Licences governing water abstraction currently fall into three broad categories: abstraction that is allowed all year round, only during winter (from November to March) and only during the summer (from April to October).

Although summer licences are restrictive and expensive, a series of wet summers has prompted Environment Agency officials to believe that the system should be reformed to account for periods of high flow and low flow of water.

“The licensing system currently refers to seasonal abstraction,” said Andy Turner, the agency’s water resources strategy manager. “I would like to approach it differently – allowing summer abstraction under strict conditions if water flow is high enough.”

Many parts of the country were water-stressed and over-abstracted, said Mr Turner during a presentation to a UK Irrigation Association seminar in Peterborough. A more efficient use of existing resources was vital.

Agriculture would come under increasing pressure due to global warming, which would impact on yields, land use and crops, as well as water availability, he told delegates on Thursday (8 May).

“There will be future pressures on an already stressed situation because of climate change. But it is not just about climate change. We need to accommodate an extra 20-25m people in this country by the middle of this century. It is a double whammy.”

Although the policy had yet to be decided, any move to encourage more abstraction at times of peak water flow was likely to be reflected in a revised charging schedule which would make it cheaper to do so, Mr Turner suggested.

Farmers were also increasingly likely to face time-limited licences, renewal tests requiring individual licence holders to demonstrate a continued need for abstraction and special audits to prove water was being effectively managed.

“It is not necessarily a case of using less water, but a matter of efficient use and getting more crop per drop,” said Mr Turner. “This could see some farmers being allowed to use more water, not less.”

Many of the ideas are likely to be contained in a new water resources strategy for England and Wales, which the agency is due to publish later this year.