Sweeping changes to the water abstraction licensing regime have major implications for farmers in the east.
Government plans to replace the existing system of licences with abstraction permissions (APs) represent the most radical overhaul of irrigation licensing for 50 years, says the NFU.
Under the proposals, the APs would have no end or termination date.
Seasonal conditions, separate licences for winter or summer abstraction, would disappear, with APs containing conditions that will link access to water availability instead.
This will allow higher flows to be abstracted all year, not just in winter, but it will restrict use on all abstractors during very low river flows.
Speaking at a farmers meeting in Suffolk this week, NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond said it was vital that the proposals delivered a fair share of water for agriculture.
“If we are going to grow high-value, high-quality fruit and vegetables we need access to a secure supply of water,” Mr Raymond told the meeting at Stratford St Andrew.
“This government consultation is very important and this will be a big issue for the NFU in the months ahead,” he said.
The Suffolk meeting was the first of six consultation meetings organised by the NFU to brief irrigators on the proposals and to get their views.
NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett explained that the government was committed to the “most radical overhaul of irrigation licensing for 50 years”.
Its aim was to develop a new system that promotes economic growth while protecting the environment – but water was already a precious resource.
The consultation also includes proposals for a simplified system of water trading.
Government ministers believe this will lead to more reservoir construction – including collaborative projects between neighbouring farm businesses.
“If we are going to grow high-value, high-quality fruit and vegetables we need access to a secure supply of water.”
NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond
Mr Hammett said there was already pressure on water supplies in the east of England, due to climate change and a growing population, and that pressure was likely to increase.
“Farmers use less than one per cent of abstracted water yet they hold two thirds of all abstraction licences issued in England and Wales so these plans are hugely important for the food and farming sector,” he added.
“It’s appropriate that we are starting our consultation process in East Suffolk, where growers are so dependent on a secure supply of water to grow our vegetable crops.”
Research by Cranfield University for East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group (ESWAG) estimates the value of these crops to the local economy at £51m.
Mr Hammett said that one major concern with the proposals was their failure to address water management during times of drought.
“The reform proposals have very little – if anything – to say on that and I think it’s a missed opportunity,” he added.
Mr Hammett urged members to get involved in the consultation process by sending their own response to DEFRA and by letting the NFU know their views.
The consultation closes on 28 March.
“While there are pitfalls in all this, and aspects we won’t like, this does give us an opportunity to shape a better system that will give us a fair share of water to develop our businesses and to grow food.”
Further meetings are taking place at Thorney, Cambridgeshire, (28 January); Poringland, Norfolk, (29 January); Chatham Green, Essex, (31 January); Great Massingham, Norfolk, (6 February), Newmarket, Suffolk, (7 February). Booking is essential. For details, call 01638 672 100.