Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary Memorandum by The Environment Agency (Part 2) (DWB 27(a)

  1.  By way of brief introduction, we would like to stress the importance of securing the passage of this Bill through Parliament. As we stated in our oral evidence the Bill is the final element in a series of four recommendations made previously by this Committee. Two of these are now in place; water company drought plans and water company resource plans. The third, a national water resource strategy, is to be published on 21 March. It is important that the decisions made by Government as set out in Taking Water Responsibly are fully implemented to ensure that we have all the necessary tools in place to manage water resources effectively in the twenty first century.

  2.  We have been asked to submit further evidence relating to trickle irrigation, our concerns as to the impact it can have and the likelihood of other trickle irrigators finding themselves in the situation of Mr Place. This we set out below, but we first wish to ensure that there is no misunderstanding arising from our assertion that trickle irrigation is the cause of environmental damage in some circumstances. This relates not to the effect of the irrigated water on soil or land, but to the effect that the taking of the water from rivers or from underground has on other abstractors and on the water environment.

  3.  As examples of this we can cite:

    —  The impact of trickle irrigation on a stream in Hampshire, which is a source for licensed spray irrigation. During the drought of 1995, trickle irrigation was taking place upstream of a pond to such an extent that water levels in the pond fell to an unacceptably low level. Those persons licensed to abstract water from the pond were unable to do so and one of the authorised abstractors went out of business as a result.

    —  Uncontrolled trickle irrigation by growers on the Isle of Wight has reduced the flow in a river from which Southern Water take water for public supply. This has led to an additional pumping requirement on the water company to maintain river flows as required by the terms of their licence. The additional costs will feed through to their customers.

    —  Development of boreholes for trickle irrigation in Sussex has impacted adversely on a neighbouring water company source and contributed to the influx of contaminated water into an otherwise uncontaminated part of the aquifer.

    —  There have been signifcant numbers of trickle irrigation schemes being developed in areas where we consider that no resources are available for further development and where licences are no longer granted. This will, over time, contribute to environmental degradation due to overexploitation by the uncontrolled abstractions.

  4.  Where the Agency is approached for advice on proposals for trickle irrigation schemes, we make clear the legal and resource position. We discourage developments in areas where a licence could not be granted and may offer advice on possible alternatives. We are aware, however, that trickle irrigation schemes are sometimes developed as an alternative to spray irrigation schemes, where a licence for such schemes cannot be granted.

  5.  It will not be possible to grant licences for trickle irrigation schemes that would breach either the Agency's statutory obligations when considering the grant of a licence, or its duties to protect designated sites such as those under the Habitats Regulations (SI 1994/2716). Where the Agency is of the view that a licence cannot be granted, the applicant will have a right of appeal. The merits of each case can then be examined further via the appeals process. There are currently no provisions for compensation to be paid where refusal to grant a licence is upheld on appeal. Should any compensation be deemed necessary or appropriate where current abstractions brought under control for the first time are not licensed, the option of funding such costs other than from charges to existing licence holders through the Agency's scheme of abstraction charges, should be considered.

  6.  On the extent of difficulties in granting licences to existing irrigators when they are required to apply, we are aware of some 850 trickle irrigation schemes and estimate that more than 200 of these may be at some risk of not obtaining a licence. It should be emphasised that these figures are best estimates given that there is no requirement to formally register such activities with the Agency under the current exemption and we therefore have limited information. These figures are likely to include some small-scale trickle irrigation schemes that may remain exempt under the future regulatory regime if the normal threshold is set at 20 cubic metres per day. The risk of not obtaining licences predominantly affects the larger abstractions in areas in the south and east of England. This reflects the concentration of irrigation activity in those areas, the pressure on available resources and the increased potential for adverse environmental effects of such schemes.

  7.  When legislation has introduced or extended licence control in the past, existing abstractions have been brought under control by the use of special transitional arrangements that set the qualifying criteria or conditions under which they can continue under authority of a licence. This has previously occurred with Licences of Right granted under the Water Resources Act 1963 and Licences of Entitlement issued under the Water Act 1989. The issue of licences under such transitional arrangements has led to a number of environmentally damaging abstractions being allowed to continue, in consequence such abstractions have required action or plans to remedy them. The new arrangements for bringing trickle irrigation under control should be structured so as to avoid similar problems being perpetuated.

  8.  Where the impact of a trickle irrigation scheme is not clear, we would envisage that a licence might be granted. As with all new licences, it would be issued with a time limit. This would then be reviewed within the context of the Agency's Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies (CAMS). This would allow existing abstractions for trickle irrigation to continue for a number of years until the date of expiry specified on the licence. During this period the resource position and sustainability issues for all abstractors within the catchment will have been assessed via the CAMS process. Where problems have been identified, other options could be considered or developed during this period to mitigate adverse environmental effects. Alternative arrangements could be made for the supply of water with reasonable notice of non-renewal of time limited licences given to the abstractor.

  9.  We are also asked what action we propose to augment supplies in the case of Mr Place. The Agency has a statutory duty to secure the proper use of water resources and to conserve, redistribute and augment these in England and Wales. This duty is, however, discretionary in so far as any actions taken by the Agency shall be those which it considers necessary or expedient for securing the performance of that duty. The Agency seeks to ensure the proper use of water resources primarily by means of the licensing system. The relative costs and benefits of any resource augmentation or redistribution schemes promoted by the Agency must be taken into account.

  10.  In so far as Mr Place is concerned, we would advise that aquifer re-charge is unlikely to be a practical option. The success of such schemes depends upon suitable groundwater strata capable of retaining water in confined areas and the availability of donor supplies of acceptable quality. This combination of conditions is found infrequently and there are considerable technical and legal difficulties with the operation of such schemes. Only major public water supply schemes have so far been considered or developed utilising aquifer re-charge. For individual abstractors, and farmers in particular, we encourage augmentation of supplies through the use of winter storage, wherever this is possible.

March 2001

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