6 June 1997

East will suffer most from water use restrictions

By Tony McDougal

MANDATORY water restrictions are set to be imposed on farmers within three weeks by the Environment Agency, which will monitor compliance for the first time from the air.

Farmers in Suffolk and Essex are likely to bear the brunt of the restrictions as the EA introduces compulsory 50% irrigation savings despite voluntary moves to cut water use by more than 130 farmers.

Alan Hull, EA eastern area drought manager, said ground-water levels throughout Suffolk and Essex were at their lowest on record because of dry conditions over the past two years. Only two-thirds of the expected rainfall has fallen over the past 24 months.

"We are charting new territory now – we just do not know how rivers and wetlands are going to be affected later this summer."

While Mr Hull was optimistic that a total ban would not be needed, he was disappointed that farmers had been irrigating wheat as well as potatoes and sugar beet.

"On the one hand we have had a lot of support from farmer groups which have volunteered to cut irrigation, but others knowing that a ban was likely have been irrigating everything. So, we will be stepping up our monitoring campaign this year, using air surveillance for the first time."

Ben Freer, Morley Research Station spokesman, said he had been surprised to see some farmers irrigate wheat. Although average rainfall in Norfolk had helped boost crops, more was needed.

Malting barley responded rapidly to the rain early last month and he warned there could be a problem with straw strength and lodging.

Rob Burrow, Potato Council marketing spokesman, said that a combination of frosts in April and lack of rainfall had delayed lifting, though some was beginning in East Anglia.

If irrigation was banned later in the summer, he estimated crop yields could fall from an average 44.5t/ha to nearer 40t/ha.

"It is just too soon to predict, but if we have a long drought, it will affect production and lead to higher prices," he warned. &#42