14 February 1997

Protect water licences now

FARMERS taking water for irrigation from rivers, streams and boreholes should protect existing licences as new ones are hard to come by, and renewals may not be for the full amount.

That advice comes from Suffolk farmer Robin Upton who pumps water from five boreholes for 180ha (445 acres) of crop potatoes, onions and carrots on his drought-prone farm near Newmarket.

"We must look after licences and do everything to maintain a supply," he told farmers at a water resources conference at Ipswich. "We take 2% of water used nationally but are particularly vulnerable to an extraction ban as, unlike industry, we receive no compensation for losses caused."

Irrigated crops yield produce worth £0.5bn at the farm gate and twice as much after packing. The packing industry employs an estimated 150,000 people. Without sufficient irrigation water crops could not be reliably grown in the UK and produce would have to be imported at a huge cost to the nations balance of payments, he said.

"Sudden 100% restrictions on water use by farmers cannot be tolerated as this wrecks crop prospects," he told the Suffolk Agricultural Association conference, which was sponsored by Bidwells. "A sudden ban slapped on us in August 1991 was disastrous. We had already applied five inches to potatoes, but were lost and we ended up with a lot of small potatoes."

That prompted the creation of the 73-farmer Lark abstraction group, which consults with the Environment Agency to agree voluntary cuts so supplies can be maintained to the end of the summer.

He suggests farmers faced with supply uncertainties elsewhere should set up local groups to talk to the Environment Agency as soon as possible. "There is also a lot that could be done individually such as targeting available water more precisely, avoiding irrigating public roads, and explaining to non-farming neighbours that crops have to be irrigated to save imports and protect jobs," Mr Upton concluded.n


WATER WORRIES


&#8226 Protect existing licences.

&#8226 2% of UK water use is for farming.

&#8226 Generates £0.5bn produce.

&#8226 Avoids costly imports.

&#8226 Co-operate with neighbours to safeguard supplies.