Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Dr Keith Weatherhead


  The evidence below is based on my experience gained through my personal research, as a CAMS stakeholder Group chairman, my involvement with the UK irrigation industry (I am currently chairman of the UK Irrigation Association), and leading a series of recent university research projects, particularly:

    —  National and Regional Water Resource Strategies: Forecasting spray irrigation demand (England and Wales) to 2025 (funded by the Environment Agency).

    —  Optimum Water Use for Industry and Agriculture, (agriculture section) (funded by the Environment Agency).

    —  Climate change and Demand for Water; CC:DEW (agriculture section) (funded by Defra).

    —  Sustainable Water Resources: a framework for assessing adaptation options in the rural sector. (A Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research project, NERC/ESRC/EPSRC funded). (Leading the consortium comprising Cranfield, UEA, Nottingham, and Southampton Universities).

  The views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily agree with those of Cranfield University or any other organisation.


  1.  My responses specifically relate to irrigation water resources for agriculture.

  2.  I have taken it as given here that the irrigation of high value crops in England and the downstream businesses it supports are economically important in many areas for rural development and employment, and are environmentally sustainable compared to the likely alternatives such as importing these crops.

Whether existing water supplies are adequate, and what additional sources of water might be needed

  3.  Existing water supplies are under serious stress. Additional abstraction licences are already unobtainable in large parts of eastern England, where the need for irrigation is concentrated. Many catchments are being classified as over-abstracted. To comply with existing environmental legislation, the Environment Agency currently estimates it will have to pay over £300 million up to 2012 in compensation for curtailing or revoking existing non water company licences, to be funded from charges on continuing abstractors. No compensation will be paid after 2012. Irrigators are understandably extremely worried about the future security of their existing water resources, and the future cost of their water.

  4.  Meanwhile, irrigation water demand is currently growing at 2% to 3% per annum. Demand continues to grow under the most probable future scenarios without climate change. The Climate Change and Demand for Water project (CCDeW) forecast that climate change would increase irrigation water demand by a further 20% by the 2020s and by 30% by the 2050s, even allowing for the offset from higher yields due to higher atmospheric carbon dioxide.

  5.  Clearly this additional water is not available from existing sources. Furthermore, climate change, in eastern England at least, is likely to reduce summer flows and recharge into aquifers.

  6.  Some licensed but unused water may become re-available under licence trading, but the environmental impacts of abstracting it are uncertain. On-farm reservoirs storing winter water are feasible in some catchments, but at a significant cost to the users and the national economy. Other responses will have to be moving from lower to higher value uses, more efficient application and better scheduling. Desalinisation, re-use of effluent (other than by re-abstraction from rivers) and other exotic solutions are unlikely to be major new sources for agriculture.

What will be the impact on resource management (and particularly the need for changes in irrigation and water conservation for agriculture.)

  7.  Clearly water for agriculture is going to become scarcer and more highly valued. Even if new sources are constructed, the water will be relatively expensive.

  8.  Higher value and limited water will restrict irrigators even further towards irrigation of the highest value crops—mostly potatoes, vegetables and soft fruit for supermarkets. Irrigation of low value crops, such as grass and cereals, has already largely disappeared, and the irrigation of sugar beet is marginal.

  9.  Higher value and limited water will also encourage irrigators to move towards better application methods, better irrigation management and better scheduling. The government and Agencies can play an important role in facilitating and encouraging these moves, eg by supporting research, training and information dissemination. The support of the Defra and the Agency for the national Agricultural Water Resources Group, and the Agency's willingness to deal with abstractor groups rather than individual licence holders has been positive.

  10.  There does appear to be an opportunity to take a whole-catchment (or sub-catchment) view of irrigation water resources that is currently missing. (Some of our research, for example, has suggested that larger reservoirs on clay land can be a better solution than multiple small on-farm reservoirs, which are often on lighter soils and often have to be expensively plastic-lined.)

  11.  Resource management needs to be highly flexible to allow these adaptive changes to occur. Licences should not remain locked up on farms that no longer need them, or have only low value uses. The move towards tradable abstraction licences is to be welcomed in that respect, though we still await details for the Agency and there are fears that the mechanisms adopted may be too restricted to be workable.

  12.  The Environment Agency is keen to promote sustainable water use and "efficiency" (the definition of this for crop production remains a matter of debate). There is however a risk that the Agency could become over-involved in on-farm decision making, eg by specifying irrigation method or cropping and/or too focused on water use at the expense of other aspects of sustainability. Generally, I believe trading and increasing efficiency will work better if the Agency adopts a guiding role, setting criteria and standards, but does not try to micro-manage the details.

The implications for flood management, investment in mitigation measures, and for wider policy such as planning

  13.  No specific comments.

Ways in which the impact of changes in water availability on biodiversity can be minimised

  14.  It is clear that decreases in summer river flows, alongside increases in water demand, will lead to conflict.

  15.  The arrangements being out in place by the Environment Agency under the CAMS initiative, supported by various European legislation transposed into UK law, provides a strong basis for protecting flows and habitats without climate change. The environmental needs will be protected by restricting abstraction, to retain a hands-off hydrograph meeting environmental needs. Environmental protection is widely supported by agricultural abstractors.

  16.  What is less clear is how water availability and bio-diversity can both be protected if summer flows decrease under climate change. If the environmental need is initially fully protected, all abstraction will be disproportionately squeezed and eventually stopped. If drinking water supplies are given absolute priority, the agricultural abstractor will be even worse affected. And in the long-run, the river environment will have to adapt to climate change anyway. This suggest it may be better to progressively change the environmental flows to match climate change, and work to allow nature to adapt more gradually.

Dr Keith Weatherhead,

Senior Lecturer, Water Resources Management,

Institute of Water and Environment,

Cranfield University.

April 2004

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