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For many growers 2012 will be remembered as one of the wettest years on record, but a dry start to the season convinced Andrew Blenkiron, manager at Euston Estate, that the estate needed more water storage capacity.

“The farm desperately needed another reservoir,” recalls Andrew who over the following few years would oversee the creation of a second reservoir and the installation of an underground network of pipes and risers costing £2.5million.

“Both 2010 and 2011 were dry years and a dry start to 2012 meant there had been little opportunity to fill the reservoir. The situation came to head at the start of spring when we had to accept that we didn’t have the water needed should we have another high evapotranspiration year,” says Mr Blenkiron.

This reality led to the financially significant decision to reduce the irrigated crop area by 30%. “We simply couldn’t afford the risk of crops failing to meet market specification because we didn’t have the water to see them through to harvest.”

DEFRA figures reveal that nearly a third of the UK’s 115,000 hectares of field vegetables are grown in eastern England. The deep, fertile soils and gentle topography of the region combine with a favourable climate to provide excellent growing conditions for large-scale intensive production. It is also one of the most water stressed regions in the country.

Across the sands and sandy loam soils of the Euston Estate near Thetford, irrigation is essential to ensuring salad potatoes, onions, carrots, and parsnips all meet supermarket specification. The building of a second reservoir was the final stage in a programme of works that began in 2009 to address the risk points in the estate’s irrigation needs.

“The intention was to avoid finding ourselves in the same situation as in 2012. Today, our reservoir capacity combined with the ground water abstraction licence give us about 140% of our annual needs. This means that if we had a dry summer followed by a dry winter, we could get through two seasons by supplementing our reservoir water with our surface water volume,” he explains. This puts Euston Estate in the minority. Only 18% of reservoir-owning respondents to a questionnaire produced by researchers at Cranfield University (n. 92) indicated having sufficient capacity to maintain production in a second year of drought.

For most growers across eastern England, there is sufficient water in most seasons, but two agricultural droughts in the past three years have demonstrated the fragility of the situation. The reality of a changing climate and the extremes in weather it poses combined with increasing demand has exposed how poorly this scarce resource is managed.

“Excess reservoir capacity may seem a luxury, but it is fast becoming a necessity. Proposed reforms to abstraction licences would remove ‘headroom’ (water allocation in excess of a typical season’s requirements) in our volume. We rely on this in exceptional years to meet production requirements. Losing volume would force us to review crop areas to create new headroom and this would have a material impact on business profitability,” says Mr Blenkiron.

Many growers rely on this ‘spare capacity’ in a drought year, but to DEFRA, redundant capacity suggests inefficient allocation of resources. In a market that demands resources are fully optimised, removing such perceived inefficiencies is considered good management.

Abstraction reform

Across England and Wales, roughly 40% of the agricultural holdings are in catchments defined as 'over-licenced' and/or 'over-abstracted', according to a report published in 2010.

Tackling this dilemma has been the focus of government since the summer drought of 2018 culminated in a series of proposals to reform how farmers and other users access one of society’s most valuable resources.

Some proposals, such as a system that supports the trading of volume between users and the flexibility to take water in times of high flow outside the defied abstraction period, have been welcomed.

“At the moment we lack the infrastructure to access water during high flow while irrigating from the same reservoir. To overcome this, we are investigating a dedicated inlet pipe, but an installation cost of £125,000 it is a significant investment, but these are the sort of measures we need to consider,” says Mr Blenkiron.

Other proposals, such as the ability to revoke or vary abstraction licences without compensating the licence holder if the secretary of state deems it necessary, have provoked anger.

“Those that are more reliant on ground water are under pressure. They will have lost headroom when volumes were recovered under the Water Framework Directive and now face the loss of further capacity with the Environment Bill. The implications for those affected are serious as is the impact on the region’s food production capacity,” notes Mr Blenkiron.

Euston Estate is not alone in its predicament. In 2020, Dr Chloe Sutcliffe and colleagues from Cranfield University, analysed the responses to 15 interviews and 92 surveys from growers across the UK to understand their exposure and management responses to the risk of water shortages. The findings reveal the pressure facing growers to meet market requirements and how a lack of business confidence serves to discourage investment in new technologies or infrastructure that would improve business resilience for the long term.

 “Growers exist in an asymmetrical power relationship whereby the demands of the customer outcompete the needs of the catchment. This promotes a state of negative resilience as growers seek to maintain a level of redundant capacity to manage the risk to output from a water shortage rather than build capacities for adaptation and transformation that would sustain the business in the long run,” explains Dr Sutcliffe.

The survey also documented factors limiting grower willingness to invest, especially in long term projects.

“Production costs dictate everything. There are systems that enable greater resource use efficiency, but if they have higher operating costs or restrict production flexibility, adoption is limited,” notes Dr Sutcliffe.

Perhaps of greater concern is how possible changes in regulation are encouraging growers to favour short-term actions that could be contrary to their long-term interests.

“There is evidence that the uncertainty around shifting water regulations is driving short-term actions that benefit neither the catchment nor grower. But there are positives, with some growers collaborating at the catchment level to access water which can be seen as promoting resilience and resource use efficiency,” adds Dr Sutcliffe.

Need for clarity

The Environment Bill represents the biggest change to abstraction licencing since the passing of the Water Resources Act 1991. It has the potential to usher in a system with the flexibility to allow users to take water in times of plenty and fully utilise the technologies available to improve water use efficiency. But some of the proposals, such as giving the Environment Agency the authority to revoke or vary abstraction licences without compensating the licence holder, are arousing concern, says Paul Hammett, NFU national water resources specialist.

“The existing system is overdue reform, but despite the lack of flexibility within it, farmers are finding ways to share resources, capture water before it goes through the sea wall and adopt new technologies.  All of which can be considered as building resilience, but our concern is that the regulations may tighten before the industry has the potential to adapt,” says Mr Hammett.

As the name suggests, the focus of the Environment Bill is to enhance and protect the environment, rather than promote the sustainable use of water per se, but both can be achieved, says Mr Hammett.

“If DEFRA is to achieve the catchment level protection it desires without making field vegetable production in eastern England uneconomic, it will involve funding new infrastructure to store and distribute water, and the implementation of regulation with the flexibility to enable water to be used everywhere, not just in isolated places,” says Mr Hammett.