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AHDB Agronomists’ Conference 2016: Future access to water

16 December 2016


AHDB Agronomists’ Conference 2016 – AHDB Potatoes 

Future access to water

A recent levy payer survey carried out by AHDB Potatoes and AHDB Horticulture to help gauge the likely impact of proposed water abstraction licence changes is throwing up some interesting findings and highlighting some preparations growers might take.

AHDB Potatoes’ knowledge exchange manager Jenny Bashford said crop irrigation was the second largest use of abstracted water in agriculture (after livestock drinking water) and accounted for 38% of the total volume used, some 70 million cubic metres, according to Defra statistics.

The bulk of that water, 57 million cubic metres, was used in the Anglian region, 93% of it for spray irrigation.

Although the volume of agricultural and horticulture water use averaged around 1% of the total water used in the UK, this did not account for the ‘supplementary’ nature of much irrigation, Ms Bashford explained.

“This results in the sector requiring more abstracted water in periods of dry weather and geographically dry areas,” she said.

“According to recent Environment Agency figures there is evidence that 6% of water bodies in England and Wales are failing to meet water availability standards because of over-abstraction.”

In addition, the Environment Agency had forecast that agricultural and horticultural irrigation demands would increase between 15 to 55% across all regions in England and Wales by 2020, she said.


DEFRA proposals

To help overcome this, DEFRA had put forward proposals to reform current water management and abstraction licencing process which could come into play at some point after 2020, Ms Bashford told the conference.

Proposed changes in water licencing include:

  • Integrating drip/trickle irrigation into the abstraction licensing regime
  • Reforming the abstraction management system
  • Tailoring individual licenses to:
  • - Business need based on a time series of 10 years
  • - Remove seasonality specification from licenses
  • - Introduce permissions to take water at high flows
  • - Graduate introduction and removal of ‘hands-off flow’ licence conditions (a fixed volume of flow in the river below which abstraction is prohibited).

“With these policy changes due to be implemented after the next four years, AHDB wants to ensure that potato and horticulture growers have access to sufficient water to maintain and grow their businesses,” said Ms Bashford.


AHDB Water Use Survey

To help ascertain the risk, AHDB Horticulture and Potatoes sectors had jointly commissioned a levy-payer survey to provide greater evidence-based understanding of current water use and provide information on water availability and management.

The survey results were based on almost 600 responses, (468 from the potato sector) representing over 40,000ha of irrigable land, almost half the UK total, with an estimated output value of £630m.

The results showed that surface water was the most used source for potato and field vegetable crops.

The findings also revealed that users of surface water were the most likely to face water abstraction restrictions, the two most common reasons being shortage of surface water and cessation conditions on licences, she said.

Respondents also highlighted that storage carried high capital cost but might be essential to some business to maintain continuous crop supply.

Rain guns/booms remained the dominant application method for potato production and field horticulture. Respondents felt that trickle/drip application was technically difficult and expensive for potatoes.

The survey also showed many growers were taking actions to manage water shortages and improve their water efficiency, pointing the way for other growers to improve efficiency,

Around 250 respondents were using professional irrigation scheduling/software, and nearly as many had adopted soil or substrate moisture monitoring, said Ms Bashford.

Around 180 had installed timing systems, and just over 100 were measuring transpiration and humidity. About 30 respondents were already using drones for crop and nutrient mapping to help tailor water application, she added.

AHDB activities

Survey results were still being analysed, and Defra’s proposals had not yet been finalised so it was too early to provide details on the resilience of the industry should Defra’s proposals be enacted, said Ms Bashford.

“However, this work does provide a sound up-to-date basis that the AHDB will use to inform research and development projects for the benefit of the industry and individual farmers,” she added.

Current AHDB Potato activities to help levy payers optimise management of their water resource would continue. These included the monthly hydrological review, seasonal water management advice and Spot Farm demonstrations, as well as research into soils and water programmes.

Future AHDB knowledge exchange activities were also planned, she said. These would include regular levy payer updates, including changes to the abstraction regime, research to improve use and crop uptake of water, and technical information including new systems for water application.


Preparing for change

Early findings from the survey also highlight several actions growers could take to prepare for change, said Ms Bashford.

These included quantifying water resource headroom and taking account of this in business planning, considering cost-benefit assessments of improved water management and considering land management improvements for appropriate soil water storage and retention.

“The water research is a work in progress,” said Ms Bashford. “Once we fully assess the results we will provide more detailed and tailored guidance, advice and activities to help levy payers successfully adapt to the new regime as seamlessly as possible.”

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