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Time to engage in governments’ water abstraction reform

28 February 2014

Environment minister Dan Rogerson recently launched a government consultation on abstraction reform to the 50-year-old licensing system. Water use and supply is an essential factor in potato crop production and AHDB Potatoes urges the industry to take a pro-active approach to ensure security of supply.

Our current abstraction system is said to be no longer flexible enough to deal with the challenges of climate change and a growing population, explains AHDB Potatoes water expert Chris Steele.
“That’s why it’s crucial that the proposed reforms safeguard the environment in the future and allow the economy to grow. This is really important to get right, so I’d encourage everyone who has an interest, to respond to the consultation or send their views into the AHDB Potatoes and we’ll include them in our response.”
The key themes of the consultation proposal include:
  • Increasing the amount of water that can be used by systematically linking access to water to water availability
  • Incentivising abstractors to manage water efficiently
  • Helping abstractors to trade available water effectively, ensuring that we get the most value out of our water and do not waste water which could be used
  • Ensuring we have a more effective process to review licences, striking the right balance between providing regulatory certainty for abstractors and managing environmental risk
  • Incentivise abstractors to manage risks from future pressures on water resources, increasing their own resilience and that of river catchments.
Potato industry members are encouraged to attend workshops that are being held by Defra and the Welsh Government during February/March:
  • London – 25 February
  • Manchester 27 February
  • Peterborough 4 March
  • Cardiff 6 March
Those wanting further details about the meetings should email:
“The management and efficient use of water is a high priority within the GB potato industry,” adds Chris. “Our data shows that 55 per cent of GB growers have irrigation equipment, therefore an on-going, reliable and consistent supply is vital to maximise both yield and quality.”
“Water legislation will have a huge impact on our industry and there is a current desire to simplify regulation by Government and its key departments, including Defra. Therefore it is essential that the GB potato industry takes the opportunity to influence policymakers by taking part in the consultation.”
Recent research from Cranfield University suggests that many more farmers will probably have to abstract in the future as the climate changes. This will particularly impact growers of potatoes (c.50% don’t currently irrigate according to Cranfield) and field vegetables (c.70% don’t irrigate). “Even if you don’t irrigate at the moment it is important to realise the relevance of abstraction reform for future years.” said Chris.
Speaking at AHDB Potatoess Winter Forum (East), held at Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research in January, NFU’s water resources specialist Paul Hammett said, “The government consultation provides the ideal opportunity to deliver a new system that makes the link between food security and water security.”
“Growers want more flexibility in how they use water, but their top priority is security of supply. How can we create a system that is responsive to drought conditions and how will water be shared out when there’s just not enough to go around?”
“Farmers want to be reassured that a new system will give farmers fair and equitable access to water -something that’s missing from the current system.”
The UK already faces challenges in water availability and many catchments have no spare water that can be allocated for further abstraction due to a need to protect the environment.  This is likely to become more of a challenge in the future with an increasingly varied weather patterns and a rising population.
“The Water White Paper set out that no compensation will be provided for any changes in access to water in the transition to a reformed abstraction regulation system,” said Chris. “But it states that it would take into account current licences and usage.”
“The proposal also suggests where water is scarce systems will need to be enhanced to better manage water.  This could mean that some abstractors will need to upgrade their meters so they can be linked to a telemetry system i.e. become a smart meter that communicates with the regulator.”
If the abstractors have the storage facility and access to abstract water they will be able to store it in the winter to use in the summer. Under the reformed abstraction regulation system there would no longer be seasonal conditions so that abstractors can abstract at any time during the year, as long as the flows in the river are high enough. Furthermore, charges would more accurately reflect how much water is returned to the environment.
For those who will need to irrigate potato crops in the future, new abstractors would have to apply for a permit to abstract and prove they had a legitimate need for water.
“In a catchment where there was available water, they could then also apply for a specific volume of water to abstract, which they would have to demonstrate a need for in a similar way to the current system,” said Chris. “If there was no available water or at least none with a level of reliability required by the abstractor, they would have to enter the market to buy access to water over the short or long term from other abstractors who wanted to sell.”
The environmental protection levels are set by legislation such as the Water Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive. Details of these including the latest water news and AHDB Potatoes ‘Irrigation and water use best practice guide for potatoes’ is available at:
The Consultation closes 28 March, 2014 and it’s vital the potato industry gets its views across and gets involved.  Please respond to the consultation at ( or email your views to
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