4 August 1995

Natural supplies can keep a lid on rising water bills

Dairy farms need water to keep milking plants clean and for some the cost runs into thousands of £. Here Jeremy Hunt visits a firm that specialises in helping farmers cut their water bills by taking advantage of natural supplies

DAIRY farmers are becoming increasingly concerned about the high cost of water, so it is no surprise that the initial investment in locating and piping a private supply is seen as money well spent.

But Tim Broster, who runs the Cheshire-based Blair Drilling, Over Peover, near Knutsford, says farmers are still not fully aware of how relatively cheap it is to locate their own private water supply.

"The average dairy farm we deal with faces annual mains water charges of around £2000-£2500. For about £6500-£8000 they should be able to cover the costs of exploratory drilling and setting up the private supply for life.

"It is a one-off investment with an unbeatable pay-off that guarantees total control of a natural resource which is going to become one of the most expensive fixed costs of any farm business," says Mr Broster.

He fears the next 20 years will see rapidly escalating charges for water, especially to bulk users like farmers. "Privatisation of the water industry will undoubtedly lead to users paying much more."

Borehole water well engineers, Blair Drilling provides a complete service from the survey of the land to detecting likely sources right through to storage and filter systems, should they be necessary.

"Farmers are well aware of the rising costs of water but they dont realise that they could be totally independent by drawing off natural water supplies already on the land," says Mr Broster.

After a farmers initial enquiry detailed geological maps of the whole of the UK enable Blair Drilling to make an assessment of where water is most likely to be located. Those considering private supplies include farmers wishing to become independent of mains water as well as holdings dissatisfied with the inconsistent quality and supply from natural springs.

"Farms on sandstone and gritstone have classic water holding potential but this is not a limiting factor in locating water pockets."

Most farms can be drilled for water, though identification of the supply is only the first step.

"There are hot areas where extraction can be restricted. This is the type of information that we can provide after the initial enquiry has been made."

Farmers are not charged for the first on-site visit to evaluate the potential for extraction. Consult-ation with the National Rivers Authority and the National Geological Survey follows to provide a full assessment of the farms water holding properties. "At that stage we know what the over-burden is going to be. In other words just how much clay and soil has to be drilled through before we hit rock and, hopefully, strike water.

"The farmer receives a quote and if that is agreed there follows a pumping test to see whether groundwater is available in the quantity and quality required and if other users are affected. If everything is satisfactory an application is sent to the NRA setting out the quantity of water that would be extracted to meet the holdings needs based on a cubage rate per hour, per day and annually."

Before the rig is brought to the farm to start exploratory drilling the company has to undertake a detailed survey – enforced by the NRA – of the surrounding area to include all ditches, ponds, streams and boreholes.

Once the pump test has been approved and is underway the company must monitor all other wells, springs and water-courses within a specified area to ensure their supplies are not being adversely affected by the new borehole. This is undertaken for a period of at least a week.

Once water has been located and any surrounding supplies shown to be unaffected by the extraction, other public notification procedures follow depending on how much water is to be taken.

If there are no objections lodged against the extraction and the NRA fully approves the project, a licence is granted. The NRA requires a meter to monitor usage and charges a minimal annual charge to maintain the licence.

Water is drawn from the well, which can be up to 61m (200ft) deep, and, depending on the individual situation, a pressure vessel and header tank can be installed. Water quality is tested immediately supplies are reached.

"Some supplies are acid, others alkaline, some may contain trace elements but it can all be treated. The end result is total control of your own water supply for life and that is beginning to look like a very tempting prospect to a lot of dairy farmers," says Mr Broster. &#42