The Government launched in 2020 a National Framework for Water Resources with the ambition to move to strategic regional planning. It sets out the principles, expectations and challenges and these have been developed and agreed by 5 regional groups, including water companies, other major water abstractors, government, regulators and stakeholders.
Each regional group has created a draft water resources plan for consultation. For Eastern England the focus is on reducing demand and increasing the amount of water available through two new reservoirs and transfers.
These plans include very minimal input from the agri-tech community and there are opportunities for innovation to provide new solutions.
The NFU broadly supports the government approach, as it is in alignment with its own Integrated Water Management strategy. and it is keen to support a collaborative approach. However, the NFU report makes the observation that the government’s strategy for integrated water management should be ‘Plan, Protect and Invest’. It will also need an action plan that is realistic and has a time frame attached to it
The NFU pledges to:
- Promote the implementation of contingency planning on farms to tackle the dual risks of flooding and water supply disruption.
- Better understand our water demand and act to reduce waste.
- Encourage best practice in the management of land and water
The challenge for agriculture
Currently farmers have licences for water abstraction for irrigation; these are to be replaced with permits and abstraction is to be capped.
Although there is a drive to increase on-farm storage of flood water there are also currently planning restrictions.
All farm abstractors need to look at how they can adapt their operations to use water more efficiently.
Agri-Tech offers alternative strategies
A challenge is an opportunity for innovation and there are currently a number of strategies on the table where innovative approaches are required. (See also stories at bottom of this page for innovative solutions.)
Sustainable access to water
- Reclaim the rain – rainwater harvesting using tanks to store runoff from hard surfaces, and flood capture storing water on-farm for later irrigation.
- Use water more efficiently in agriculture – smart irrigation targeted by crop need, drip irrigation, more efficient sprayers, sustainable water abstraction.
- Store more in the environment – two major reservoirs are under discussion in South Lincs and the Cambridgeshire Fens (abstract from River Witham/Trent Lincs and Great Ouse Cambs).
- Greater use of grey water – non-portable water for use in some applications including treated effluent reuse – this requires quality monitoring and alerts for microbial content.
- Desalination – options include coastal, estuary, floating on barge and piped onshore. But boreholes also have salt ingress and potentially other technologies exist.
- Increase soil health – greater organic content improves absorption and retention and reduces leaching of nutrients such as nitrogen. Cover crops to protect soil in winter. Timing of digestate application to reduce runoff.
- Nature-based solutions – use of plants such as grass, reeds to remove pollutants (phytoremediation). Storm ditches (swales) that use microbes to reduce nitrates. Using hedges and trees for shelter to reduce transpiration of crop.
- Alternative crops – selection of crops and varieties that are more resilient to drought.
Enhance water quality
Water quality in England’s rivers and streams has declined, so the draft regional plans also include goals for environmental improvement – the ‘Enhance’ scenario – which aims to achieve ‘Good Ecological Status’ in all water bodies and protection for sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and wetlands.
For the East, the importance of the Broads National Park, the Wash and Fens are internationally recognised and home to more than a quarter of Britain’s rarest wildlife.
There are also globally significant chalk rivers and the UK’s largest extent of lowland peat which is dependent upon the availability of water in river systems, aquifers (water stores in rock) and the environment (soils).
Achieving Enhance requires:
- Better networked tools for monitoring water quality with alerts and interventions.
- Modelling to see where major pollutants enter the water and under what circumstances, and impacts of water level on soils.
- Telemetry and pumping systems to monitor water levels.
- Interventions such as cover crops and permanent plantings eg willow, to reduce runoff and slow water flow.
Funding for water innovation
It is anticipated that there will be calls for more funding from a number of parties.
The NFU is asking for the government to:
- Introduce tax incentives to encourage investment in farm reservoirs and new environmental land management schemes (ELMs) to encourage water efficiency measures delivering more crop per drop.
- Invest in improved monitoring and measuring of abstraction to make best use of available water.
- Champion research and development to develop innovative solutions to water management challenge
Funding available includes:
The Ofwat Innovation Fund a pioneering £200m programme that aims to unleash a wave of innovation in the water sector and tackle some of the major challenges of our time – delivering transformative benefits for consumers, society and the environment.
The Ofwat Innovation Fund: https://waterinnovation.challenges.org/ofwat-innovation-fund/about-the-fund/
Units used in reports
An average sized bath tub, half full, equates to 100 litres of water. A cubic metre is one thousand litres and a megalitre (Ml) is one million litres. Peak summer abstraction (June- August) for irrigation is between 350 – 600 ML/day.
Briefing last updated April 2023.