Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors Group (BAWAG) (A53)


  BAWAG is an association of over 100 agricultural water abstractors based around the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia. BAWAG was founded in 1997. It represents the water interests of its members and acts as a forum for discussion of sustainable agricultural water management.

  We welcome the chance to submit evidence to the Environment and Rural Affairs Select Committee inquiry.


  BAWAG members are concerned that in addressing the current challenges faced by farming the Government and others are focussing primarily on the supported sector. Many farmers and growers such as those who produce potatoes, vegetables and soft fruit do not receive subsidies from the CAP. Many of these farmers and growers in the unsupported sectors rely on irrigation. There are currently a number of threats to the long-term viability of irrigation; these threats are both legislative and fiscal. Unless the Government addresses the needs of irrigators, either through statutory concessions or grants for improved water management, the impacts on farming, particularly in East Anglia will be devastating and will have a dramatic impact on the wider economy of the region. Also, since our members have particularly high production standards, the environmental impacts associated with their produce are minimal and a shift in production to other regions or countries will probably have a negative environmental impact.

  A removal of access to irrigation water will lead to the collapse of farming in the region with disastrous consequence for our members. To date, there has been no Government recognition of the scale of this problem, nor has any significant action been taken to tackle this problem. We would like the Government to address the concerns of irrigators, both when considering reforms of the CAP and when implementing legislation such as the proposed Water Bill and the EU Water Framework Directive.


Importance of Irrigation to BAWAG Members

  The members BAWAG represents are currently able to produce high quality food to exacting environmental standards and provide high levels of rural employment, without subsidies. The importance of irrigation to BAWAG members cannot be overstated. Without irrigation they could not produce their crops. Irrigation methods in the area are amongst the most advanced in the world, which means that, whilst there are environmental impacts associated with our production, we are able to produce high quality food to higher environmental standards than most imports and compared to production in other areas of the UK where soil types and climatic conditions restrict production levels and thus reduce irrigation efficiency. The high technical standards and expertise of our members also means that the off-farm impacts of crop production products and fertilisers are minimised.

Impacts of Restrictions on Irrigation

  A loss of irrigation capacity would lead to a change in crops, probably a switch to cereal production, this would mean a large portion of East Anglian production would move from the unsupported to supported sector. This would also lead to increased farm sizes to maximise CAP payments, it would mean a loss of jobs, as non-irrigated production is generally less labour intensive.

  The secondary effects would be a loss of biodiversity as field sizes increase and also a loss of jobs in the wider economy, such as the processing factories and logistical support services associated with potato, vegetable and soft fruit production would move. There would also be environmental impacts in the regions to which production shifted. For example, a move of potato or vegetable production to the Welsh Marches would lead to an increase in diffuse pollution due to the release of nitrates as pasture is replaced by arable production, indeed this is already happening.

Sustainable Irrigation Methods

  Despite the importance of irrigation to our members they recognise the environmental concerns the Government and the European Commission are trying to address through, inter alia, the Habitats and Birds Directives, the Water Framework Directive and the proposed Water Bill. In general our members support the environmental objectives of the Government and of organisations working to protect and enhance biodiversity and the quality of the water environment. However, we believe that the Government should take a sustainable approach which also values the economic and social contribution that irrigated production makes to the rural community in East Anglia.

  Our members do not wish to damage the environment through their methods of production and BAWAG members use sophisticated irrigation methods that maximise water efficiency. BAWAG members also recognise that they can continue to improve their standards, and constantly improving and update soil moisture monitoring techniques and the quality of their irrigation equipment.

  As an organisation BAWAG regularly updates its members on changes in legislation and improvements in irrigation technology. It also holds seminars and talks at which Government departments, green NGOs and farming organisations can present their views on irrigated production.

Winter Storage Reservoirs as a Water Resource Option

  The main impact the current legislative drivers, both from Westminster and the EU, and the actions of the Environment Agency, are having on irrigators relate to the loss or restriction of summer abstraction licences for irrigation water.

  It is generally recognised that the best way to deal with this problem is the construction of winter storage reservoirs. Indeed the Environment Agency recognise on-farm winter storage (either individual or joint schemes), as a highly desirable option for meeting agricultural water needs stating that it is a "long term sustainable option, positive contribution to all four sustainability development themes" (Environment Agency, Anglian Region Water Strategy, 2001).

  However, an average winter storage reservoir costs £250,000. Most farmers and growers do not have the capital or ability to borrow the funds needed to construct winter storage reservoirs. There is an additional concern that since the payback period for this investment is at least 20 years and the proposed Water Bill may restrict time-limits for abstraction licenses to less than 20 years, farmers may be left with a reservoir but not the means to fill it over the winter. If licences do not guarantee a water supply for the economic or physical life of the reservoir farmers will not pursue this option.


  In order to maintain our businesses and to ensure our methods of production are as environmentally positive as possible, we would like the Government to undertake a series of measures.

  1.  A recognition of the importance of irrigated agriculture to the East Anglian economy. The Government should adopt a precautionary approach to protect agricultural water supplies in the East Anglian region and there should be a prioritisation of agricultural water supplies in the region.

  2.  The provision of substantial grants available for high efficiency irrigation equipment and winter storage reservoirs, similar to the farm improvement grants available in the 1950 and 1960s. Although there are grants available for reservoirs from DEFRA under the Rural Enterprise Scheme they are not specifically earmarked for water storage and the amount of money is insufficient to make even a minor impact on the water resource needs of the agricultural community.

  3.  The provision of free on farm advice on water conservation, water audits and irrigation best practice to help farmers improve their water efficiency.

  4.  Time limits on abstraction licences set to periods that reflect the financial lifetime of the associated assets.

  5.  Full consideration of social and economic impacts of environmental actions such as licence reductions.

  6.  No removal of permanent abstraction licences without compensation reflecting levels of investment and projected future returns, with compensation for licence variations/removals to be met from taxation, not abstraction licence fees.

  7.  Established trickle irrigators to be given an amnesty, when the changes to abstraction licences in the new Water Bill are enacted. Trickle irrigators should be granted time-limited licences on a par with existing licences.

December 2001

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