Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has warned the Welsh Government that its proposed new water rules may have the ‘perverse outcome’ of making water quality worse.
The official advice from the regulator, obtained as part of a freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by NFU Cymru, also said NRW did not have enough resources to implement the new rules if they applied to all farm businesses across Wales.
The regulations, criticised by farm leaders for being a ‘copy and paste’ of earlier controversial Nitrate Vulnerable Zone plans, cover a range of practices including where and how fertilisers are spread and manure storage standards.
NRW’s advice was given specifically on the Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) being carried out by Welsh Government, which should consider the effect of the new rules on farm businesses.
It said: “At a time of uncertainty within the farming industry, it is unlikely there will be significant investment in infrastructure or a willingness to invest as outlined as expected requirement and assumptions in the RIA. As a result, to comply with the regulations, farming practices may change.
“To reduce slurry production, increased outwintering of animals with the potential associated negative impacts on soil and water resources (perverse outcomes) may be seen as a cost effective business solution.
“These actions sit outside of current regulations and could only be addressed once pollution had occurred. This could exacerbate potential water quality issues.”
NRW also claimed the Welsh Government had ‘lost an opportunity’ in only considering two options – do nothing, or an all-Wales approach – and suggested the assessment did not follow the Welsh Government’s own RIA guidance on presenting a comprehensive range of implementation choices.
It also questioned the lack of analysis on water quality in the RIA and how proportionate the measures would be in areas where low nitrate concentrations are found, concluding the assessment would be ‘open to challenge’ from a number of stakeholders.
NFU Cymru deputy president Aled Jones said: “The information received from NRW through the FOI process only reinforces our concern that the RIA upon which an all-Wales NVZ decision is to be taken is flawed.
“As a result, NFU Cymru has written to Welsh Government and asked for the deficiencies to be addressed, with a fresh RIA to be undertaken without delay and ahead of the final decision to introduce regulation being taken.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Agricultural pollution is one of the main causes of water pollution.
"Action is needed to tackle the damage being done to the environment, our rural communities and the reputation of the farming industry. Industry leaders must recognise the scale of this issue and take a responsible approach.
“The Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs will consider all available evidence when making a final decision on nutrient management issues and regulation.”