A massive upheaval of the rules governing water abstraction will create winners and losers within the farming industry, the Country Land and Business Association has warned.
Defra has published detailed proposals for regulatory reforms it said would create ‘a better, fairer and more modern approach’ to water abstraction in England from the early 2020s.
The proposals signal the end the current abstraction licence system, set up in the 1960’s, which Defra said was ‘no longer flexible or modern enough to respond to pressures on the environment, farming and other business requirements’.
The key elements of the reform include new permits with abstraction limits reflecting a farm’s likely water usage, moves to make it easier for farmers to store water and a system enabling abstractors to trade water more easily at times of low supplies.
In the consultation document Defra said: “We want to reform how water abstraction is regulated, revealing the value of water, to help businesses to respond better to short term low flows as well as enable a focus on long term investment and growth.
“We want to ensure all abstractors can access the water they need for their businesses and that there is enough water left in our rivers and groundwater to maintain habitats and water quality.”
CLA head of land use policy Damian Testa said it was critical the reformed system enabled farm businesses to maintain certainty and security of supply to abstract the water they need to produce food.
“There are likely to be winners and losers from the proposed new system,” he said.
We welcome the ability to store bonus water in water-scarce catchments when flows are high, and the removal of seasonal restrictions.
“However if unused licence volumes are removed or restrictions imposed based on average usage, farmers will be hit hard.
“Not only could this damage food production, but also limit the possibility of the expansion of their businesses, affect capital values and leave jobs at risk too.”
Commenting on the proposed new water shares system in water-scarce catchments, he warned it could see farms priced out the market, with commercial implications for primary producers supplying supermarkets.
NFU national specialist for water resources Paul Hammett said the proposals signalled a ‘major upheaval’ to the current abstraction licensing system.
“It’s absolutely vital they deliver a fair share of water to help our farmers and growers produce affordable, high quality food,” he said.
“The reform package must be underpinned by measures that encourage more surplus river water to be stored by helping farmers to construct more reservoirs, including by offering tax incentives.
“Secure access to water at times of drought is crucial for our members and we will continue to focus on the Defra’s plans for managing water at low river flows.”
He said welcomed the proposed abolition of section 57 restrictions that currently apply uniquely to farmers and growers.
“However abstractors will still be subject to more general restrictions during times of low river flows and we will continue to press for ‘Water for Food’ to be recognised as a high priority use during times of shortage,” he said.
"The challenge facing the agri-food sector lies in ensuring that producers are given a fair allocation of water for food production when existing licences are transferred to new permits,” he said.
He said NFU would seek to ensure government policy and legislation moves at a ’measured pace’ over the next few years to allow farming businesses sufficient time to adjust and invest in water security and efficiency measures.
The Welsh Government will publish a separate response document to the consultation on the reforms setting out its proposals for handling the reforms in Wales. Defra said shared a joint vision for the future of the abstraction management system with the Welsh Government.