Environment Agency gets tough on water

Farmers face a sharp rise in water costs and drastic curtailing of abstraction licenses under new proposals by the Environment Agency.

The agency published its new Water Resources Strategy this week, setting out plans to reduce water use to avert severe shortages in the future caused by climate change and population growth.

“Climate change will reduce the amount of water available in rivers in England and Wales by 10-15% by 2050, and up to as much as 80% during summer months,” it said. “This, along with a potential 20m increase in the population, will put even greater pressure on the country’s limited water supplies.”

The EA expected demand for irrigation, which was the main use of water by agriculture, to increase by 25% by 2020 due to climate and cropping changes. With agricultural irrigation usually concentrated at a time when water resources are low, it has proposed an overhaul of abstraction licenses to a time-limited status, chargeable on volumes extracted.

“Our water requirement is going to go up, but summer abstraction is going to become more and more difficult,” said Peter Bennett, agri-business director at Savills. Dairy farmers could also face sharply higher water bills as well as costly capital investment to alter existing infrastructure to recycle dirty water, for example.

The EA has proposed that farmers collaborate and build their own reservoirs, but this was likely to cost about £9000 for a lined, 1m gallon reservoir. Although the EA said it supported access to funding, this was unlikely to be forthcoming, he added.

“It’s all going to be additional cost. The EA talks about encouraging extra funding for land managers, but in the current climate I don’t see that happening.”

Planning permission was another concern, and it was essential that local councils understood the importance of granting permission.

The strategy also proposed widespread metering of water use, the encouragement of water-efficient buildings, and the potential to pay farmers to protect and improve water quality and resources. Although Mr Bennett did not disagree with many of the proposals, the devil would be in the detail, and funding would be critical.

“It’s chicken and egg. The EA mentions food security, which is a good thing, but then it goes round in circles.” Without doubt, water would become scarcer and more valued for food production. But without the necessary investment and funding, meeting future challenges would be extremely difficult, he added.

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