Amid farmers reporting water supply concerns for crop irrigation and livestock welfare, culminating in the NFU’s drought summit, the Environment Agency (EA) has issued guidance detailing options to flex abstraction licences in serious cases relating to the drought.
The arrangements will allow farmers to trade water allowances - as set out in their abstraction licence - on a short-term basis, without the need to change their licence, said the EA.
The EA says it will fast-track the process to enable farmers to act quickly and arrangements will be agreed locally where the EA is satisfied that there will not be any adverse effects on the environment or the rights of other lawful water users. The EA also monitors river flow and will maximise access to water when it is available, such as following heavy rain, it said.
In severe cases where there is a real or imminent threat to crops and livestock, the EA said it may temporarily allow additional, emergency abstraction.
Paul Hickey, head of water resources, Environment Agency, said: “We know that farmers are facing considerable pressures in responding to drought conditions and we want to support them by allowing them to flex their abstraction licences in the most serious cases to safeguard food production and animal welfare.
“We must also balance farmers’ needs with those of wildlife and other water users so we will only allow these arrangements where we are satisfied there won’t be any adverse effects on the environment.”
The Environment Agency said it may allow on a case by case basis, a fast track or trade for short term (a few weeks to aid harvesting and lifting of existing crops) sustainable changes to licences that it would approve anyway, but would take too long to process via the normal routes.
On a case by case basis, it said it may relax enforcement action if additional emergency abstraction is temporarily required outside of licence conditions.
It added: "Our local teams will take the decision if a real and imminent threat to crops and/or livestock exists and all due regard to the environmental risk has been considered. The use of such a position will be a one off situation, temporary (48 hours), clearly defined, and closely monitored. Abstractors should then make provision to find additional emergency water.
"Alternative sources of emergency water are available from the following suppliers: www.water-direct.co.uk/ and www.wincanton.co.uk/markets/water/. Water companies have been contacted to see if they can assist in emergency tankering for livestock. Please be aware that any funding issues with such services should be taken up either individually or collectively (for example through the NFU) with Defra as the Environment Agency has no role in this."
Paul Hammett, NFU national water resources specialist welcomed the announcement. “It will benefit some farmers in some areas. It is not a silver bullet but it’s a good start.”
Regarding water trading, he suggested two parties – a farmer needing water and a farmer willing to donate water in the same water unit e.g. using water from the same river or aquifer could put a proposal to their local Environment Agency office.
“There are farmers who have abstraction licences and are finding that while water is still physically available in groundwater aquifers and rivers their legal allocation has been used up. Other farmers may have water available in their legal allocation,” says Mr Hammett.
“Normally water trading is subject to detailed and time consuming investigation. The EA has agreed that because it is so short term – a matter of weeks – that the time consuming investigation can be put to one side in these exceptional circumstances. But it is not a blanket derogation and farmers can’t do anything outside their licence without prior approval of their local EA office.”