The first of 12 NFU-organised water consultation meetings planned took place in east Suffolk in late January
The first of 12 NFU-organised water consultation meetings planned nationwide to encourage growers to engage in the up and coming reform of the abstraction licencing system took place in east Suffolk in late January, from where Dominic Kilburn reports. Growers are being urged to engage in the Governments reform of the water abstraction licencing system and to have a say in agricultures future use of water. Farming is facing the most radical overhaul of irrigation licencing for 50 years and, following the recent launch of a Government consultation on water abstraction reform, which closes on the 28th March, the NFU is urging growers to make their feelings heard by that date if they want to try and influence the way they will be able to abstract water for irrigation in the future. According to the NFU, the Government has taken the view that the existing (50 year old) licencing system is poorly designed to cope with future challenges and wants to design a system more closely linked to the availability of water, in addition to more effective trading opportunities and increased efficiency of use. This could mean that new licenses are issued based not on existing licensed volumes but on actual historical use by abstractors. The Government also wants to address the issue of unused water agriculture only uses half its licenced volumes by simplifying the huge variation between abstractors licences. Speaking at the event in Suffolk, the NFUs national specialist for water resources, Paul Hammett said that the Government was giving the industry a chance to think about the management of water in the future so that the farming community can shape things better. Farmers use only 0.6 per cent of abstracted water and yet they hold two thirds of abstraction licences in England and Wales, he stated. Plans for the future management of water at catchment level and administration of licences at farm level are therefore hugely important for the food and farming sector. There is an opportunity to build consensus and deliver water security in the future, he added. Paul suggested that with the consultation closing in late March, legislation would be introduced during the next Parliament, and that implementation of a reformed abstraction licence could take place in the 2020s. I like the long-term nature of this as it will give us all time to adapt, he commented. NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond (left) chaired the NFU-organised water consultation meeting held in Stratford St Andrew, Suffolk. On the right is the NFUs national specialist for water resources, Paul Hammett.According to Paul, two aspects of the reform proposals in particular should dominate discussion within the agricultural and horticultural sectors; Should we abolish our current system for managing abstraction and sweep away all abstraction licences to be replaced by abstraction permissions? And if so, what licence rights, conditions and volumes currently held by individuals will be transferred to the new system? Secondly, he questioned; Could a new trading system succeed in linking more closely the volume of water used in a catchment to the volume of water available? And if so, what method of trading should we operate? Paul pointed out that the NFU agreed that the current licencing system was not flexible enough and it supported the Governments principles for driving reform. There is a need for reform, however with such a variety of licences it will be complex and costly to move forward but we need to improve efficient use of abstracted water while protecting the environment. In doing so we must ensure there is fair treatment of existing abstractors and that future abstractors are not disadvantaged, he added. Economic performance Bidwells partner, James Brooke pointed out that if farmers were currently using only 50 per cent of the water licenced to them, reform of the system could potentially mean that their water security might be taken away. Defra must understand that we need our share and if a new system is based on historical usage then allowances must be made to include drought, otherwise farmers will be in a very difficult situation. Its key that we demonstrate the widespread economic performance of irrigated cropping, he stressed. Norfolk grower Henry Cator said that there should be more engagement with the Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) which manage water levels on thousands of hectares of farm land in specific catchments. So much water is pumped out to sea and there must be opportunities for farmers to become water managers, he suggested. I think that the Environment Agency should look at the IDBs extending their coverage to an entire river catchment with the whole community understanding, relating to and contributing to the resource that is water. Another grower, this time from the Suffolk coastal area, said that his abstraction licence was granted a long time ago and because some of his land had been in an Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme (ESA), his historic usage of water volumes had been relatively low. However, with HLS now not a viable option, he was concerned that if he wanted to start irrigating the land again, there would be no historic usage to measure against for a new licence. Suffolk farmer John Kerr added that his farming business depended heavily on access to sufficient water for irrigating; some land he farmed, he said, was “touch and go” in terms of having the necessary volumes of water each season while other areas of land had sufficient. As a business we need to plan for the future and we are concerned that the reform might mean wiping out what we have at the moment with our abstraction licence and starting again from scratch. Farmers from the Suffolk coastal area, and further afield, attended the meeting to hear the latest on the proposed reform of the abstraction licence system. Abstraction reform your questions answeredThe following is part of a question and answer paper prepared by the NFUs Paul Hammett to help growers understand some of the issues involved with the proposed reform of the abstraction licencing system. What is abstraction reform?Currently there is a wide range of licence types and conditions found on farms. Older licences tend to be licences of right with no end date and with few conditions or restrictions imposed on the holder. Newer licences tend to be time limited (the licence expires after, say, 10 years after this period the holder must apply for a new licence). Newer licences may include clauses such as Hands off conditions which vary the licence holders access to water depending on flows of the surface water source or levels in the aquifer. How will abstraction reform deal with access to water during drought?Government is designing this new system to address longer term chronic and gradual depletion in available water resulting from population growth and climate change. Although the new regime may be more flexible and responsive to short term water shortage, there are no plans to tackle licence management in drought conditions. The NFU believes that devising solutions to water scarcity during drought must be part and indeed a key part of the review process. In particular it believes that if the Government is serious in its commitment to equality among all users then it must abolish s57 restrictions (uniquely applied to spray irrigators) as part of the reform process. What would new abstraction permissions look like?Government proposes that the new abstraction permissions (APs) will include a consistent suite of features. Time limited and non-time limited licence features will disappear; the user will be authorised to abstract water from a particular source under certain conditions. APs will have no end or termination date but all APs in a catchment will be periodically reviewed and those conditions of use will change (with prior notice given but with no compensation available) where environmental damage is being caused. Crucially, seasonal conditions (winter and summer licences) will disappear, with APs containing conditions that will link access to water availability. This would allow higher flows to be abstracted all year, not just in winter; but would restrict use on all abstractors during very low flows. How will water charges change?Since seasonal licences will disappear, then so too will summer/winter spray abstraction charges. Government proposes a charging system that will reflect actual use rather than licensed volume. This could be achieved by charging mechanisms based on: * Net consumption. An adjustment/discount would be made to recognise volumes returned to the source after use. Since irrigation is considered to be 100 per cent consumptive with no water returned to the system, charges to farmers would still be at the top of the scale * Combination of licensed and actual volume (presumably a two part tariff mechanism for all users) * Reliability of supply, so that charges for high flow authorisations would be less than for APs that permit both high and low flow abstraction Paul Hammett said that the Government was giving the industry a chance to think about the management of water in the future. What are the trading options for abstraction reform?Two options have been tested through extensive modelling and are presented for comment in the consultation. These are called the current system plus and water shares options. Under the current system plus option the Environment Agency would continue to use methods currently applied to some licences (usually time-limited licences) to vary or prohibit abstraction (such as Hands-off Flow conditions). Conditions currently applied to licences would be transferred to APs, and would be refined to strengthen the link between water availability and permitted abstraction. All APs would then contain conditions designed to permit greater environmental protection at very low flows and allow more water to be abstracted when it is available. Defra believes that this process would make it easier for abstractors to trade with each other because it would allow the Environment Agency to pre-approve temporary, low risk trades. Under the water shares option, all abstractors would be subject to increased controls on abstraction as with current system plus. But then all abstractors would: * Receive a share of available water rather than an absolute annual/daily volume * Hold shares in water of different reliabilities (high and low flow water, for example) * Receive a water allocation for a fixed period (say, two weeks for surface water; one year for groundwater) based on current/forecast availability and the type of allocation (reliability and volume of share) Potential implications for different types of abstraction licence: I currently hold a licence of right to abstract water during summer from surface water in an over-licensed catchment. How might the proposals affect my licence? Your licence will be terminated without compensation and you will be issued with a new abstraction permission (AP) in your defined enhanced catchment. Your new abstraction permission will: * Contain no restrictions on the calendar date (season) in which you abstract water but your access to water will be based on lower flows to reflect previous summer licence conditions * Allocate an annual and daily authorised volume but your ability to abstract on any given day will depend on current flows. Your annual volume will be based on a calculation of past volumes actually used (this formula has not been agreed) * Additional high flow water may be available depending on the trading option adopted * Suspend abstraction during very low flows (applied to all users) * Be subject to s57 restrictions (applies to spray abstraction only) * Have no end date but it will be subject to periodic review and your permitted volumes will change (as will all APs in your water management unit) where the environment is found to be deteriorating; you will receive adequate (perhaps up to six years) notice of this change * Include a charging mechanism that reflects both authorised and used volume, presumably therefore similar to the current two part tariff agreement * Allow all year round access to water (under the water shares trading option) I currently hold a licence of right to abstract water during winter from surface water in an over-licensed catchment. How might the proposals affect my licence? See above. But your access to water will be based on higher flows to reflect previous winter licence conditions. I currently hold a time-limited licence with a hands-off flow restriction to abstract water during summer from surface water in an over-licensed catchment. How might the proposals affect my licence? Your licence will be terminated without compensation and you will be issued with a new abstraction permission (AP) in your defined enhanced catchment. Your AP will be issued with terms and conditions similar to the above. Your AP will contain no restrictions on the calendar date (season) in which you abstract water but your access to water will be based on lower flows to reflect previous summer licence conditions. In addition, your AP will include your previous HoF condition although this may be refined to take into account the latest environmental monitoring data. The new HoF will feature a graduated control (rather than a simple on/off mechanism). Therefore when compared with APs that were previously licences of right, your access to water will be: * Less reliable at low flows and * Equally reliable at very low flows I currently hold a time-limited licence to abstract water with a hands-off flow restriction during winter from surface water in an over-licensed catchment. How might the proposals affect my licence? See above. Your AP will contain no restrictions on the calendar date (season) in which you abstract water but your access to water will be based on higher flows to reflect previous winter licence conditions. I currently hold a groundwater licence of right to abstract water during summer in an over-licensed catchment. How might the proposals affect my licence? Your licence will be terminated without compensation and you will be issued with an abstraction permission (AP) in your defined enhanced catchment. Your AP will: * Contain no restrictions on the calendar date (season) in which you abstract water * Allocate an annual and daily authorised volume. Your annual volume will be based on a calculation of past volumes actually used (this formula has not been agreed) * Be subject to s57 restrictions (applies to spray abstraction only) where significant environmental harm can be shown * Have no end date but your annual volume will vary, if necessary, in response to long-term changes in availability * Include a charging mechanism that reflects both authorised and used volume, presumably therefore similar to the current two part tariff agreement My catchment is described as having water available for further licensing. How will my licence change? * Your licence will be terminated without compensation and you will be issued with a new abstraction permission (AP) in your defined basic catchment. * A key feature of your AP is that it will contain a clause that suspends abstraction during very low flows (applied to all users and to both time limited licence and licence of right holders). I do not have an abstraction licence and there is no water available in my catchment. How will the reform proposals help me? Defra is proposing to develop a water reserve in some catchments to help new and expanding businesses gain access to water. To do this it would recover additional unused licensed volume from all existing abstractors above the level needed to avoid risks of environmental harm arising from increased trading (see earlier). Alternatively, you could take advantage of increased opportunities to trade-in water in your catchment. The next steps To find out more about the Defra consultation and how to respond, you can read the Defra consultation document at: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/water/abstraction-reform Responses must be sent to Defra by 28th March 2014. The Defra consultation poses a series of 18 questions. The NFU will submit a detailed answer to each question after thorough consultation with its members who are strongly encouraged to respond individually to some or all of the questions, complete with an explanation of how water is used on the farm and the importance to the farm business of a secure supply of water. Growers who would like to contribute to the NFU response or share their own response with the NFU should contact [email protected] before Friday 14th March. Although every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, reform of the water abstraction licencing system is a developing story; neither the NFU nor Farmers Guide can accept liability for errors and omissions.