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Innovation for water management in agriculture

Topic Overview

Government approach

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.

NFU approach

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.

Irrigation is major consumer of fresh water.
DripUK's recyclable drip tape system reduces water, energy and labour while ensuring soil moisture levels at a critical time
DripUK’s recyclable drip tape system reduces water, energy and labour while ensuring soil moisture levels at a critical time

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.
Tailwater Systems designs, builds, and operates systems for wastewater and wellwater treatment and reuse.
Tailwater Systems designs, builds, and operates systems for wastewater and wellwater treatment and reuse.

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.
Wensum Farmers - Lizzie Emmett and Matthew Guinness
Wensum Farmers – Lizzie Emmett and Matthew Guinness

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.

Background information

* Draft Regional Water Resources Plan for Eastern England

National Framework for Water Resources

The Ofwat Innovation 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.

Could water capture solve the irrigation crisis?

Agri-TechE Article

The Felixstowe Peninsular is one of the driest areas of the country, yet every year thousands of tonnes of fresh water are pumped away into the River Deben. A collaborative project set up by farmers is reclaiming the water, storing it in artificial aquifers to supply summer irrigation. It offers potential for sustainable consumption while protecting the fragile wetlands. This is just one example of how technology can provide new solutions.

The Agri-TechE event ‘Water Innovation for Agriculture’ is taking a look at the water challenge from a new perspective.

Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE, comments: “The summer water deficit for food production is well-known, but many of the plans to create a sustainable water supply focus mainly on policy and infrastructure – to reduce water use and create reservoirs.

“If summers get hotter and drier then the requirement for agricultural water is going to increase, and worryingly, as we saw last year, some of the borehole water is turning to brine. We need to look at the issues and for solutions in different ways and a multi-disciplinary approach is required.”

Kelly Hewson-Fisher, NFU (web)
Kelly Hewson-Fisher, NFU

A speaker at the event, Kelly Hewson-Fisher, National Water Resources Specialist at National Farmers’ Union, agrees: “I think collaboration’s going to be key for unlocking potential. In terms of innovation, we need to be looking at utilising water more efficiently and more effectively to ensure we can still maintain food security and food supply.”

Many crops rely on irrigation during the summer and there have been recent developments in smart water management. Such innovations include where water is delivered according to crop need, products that increase retention of water in the soil, and systems that re-use wastewater. These options will be discussed at the event by Aquagrain, Wroot Water and Tailwater Systems.

However, access to water for food cannot be guaranteed. The current abstraction licenses, which enable farmers to pump water from rivers and boreholes, are to be replaced with permits in 2024. If the water cannot be removed from the catchment sustainably – i.e. when water levels become low – then permission will be refused.

Kelly continues: “We need to be able to capture and store water better, including rainwater harvesting and by abstracting flood water and storing it in a reservoir. In 2022 Defra supported this with grant funding through its Farming Transformation Fund and that was well subscribed.

“However, if we are to implement these initiatives we need alignment between grant funding for innovation, planning permission for reservoirs and obtaining an abstraction licence if one is required. Otherwise, it won’t work.”

She gives one example of a good farmer-led project, the Felixstowe Hydrocycle, that captures freshwater destined for the sea and reutilises it back inland. “It has filled about six on-farm reservoirs. It is those types of win:win innovation that we need to explore.”

The Hydrocycle scheme uses a ‘managed aquifer recharge’ – an innovative method of water storage which uses the natural water holding capacity of the underlying strata. Surplus water is pumped into shallow lagoons or trenches where it soaks into the ground, supplementing normal winter rainfall and helping to recharge groundwater stores.

“We also need modelling to see the implications of infrastructure developments and to see the impact on different sectors of the options that are being proposed in the National and Regional Water Strategies,” Kelly continues.

“It is essential that better information from the agricultural sector is fed into those models. One ambition is to raise the water table in the Fens. The water is currently carefully managed by the internal drainage boards, who play a critical role; it is vital they are part of any suggested solution.

“It is impossible to raise the water table in just one field; it is all interlinked with neighbouring land and will have an impact on cropping and stock levels.

“Collaboration is really the key to unlocking opportunities and potential, so if we can do that in a cross-sector, multi-sector arena and forum then you would think it would have to open up the opportunities that are available to us all.”

Agri-TechE is hosting the event ‘Water Innovation for Agriculture‘ on 8th February at Cranfield University. Speakers include: Kelly Hewson-Fisher, Daniel Johns (CEO at Water Resources East), Prof Jerry Knox and Dr Rob Simmons (both of Cranfield University) and innovators Tailwater Systems, Wroot Water and Aquagrain.

Promoting innovation in water management

Agri-TechE Article

Agriculture in Eastern England is set to lose access to approximately 17% of water currently used for spray irrigation at the peak of summer*, unless a smarter approach to water management is adopted.

Agriculture irrigation accounts for 70% of water use worldwide and over 40% in many OECD countries. Predictions for the UK suggest that there will be a shortfall in water available for agriculture (and everyone else) unless a multidisciplinary approach is taken

Availability of water – enough of it, and in the right place, at the right time – is already a major limiting factor to an increasing number of farm businesses across the UK and internationally. And the problem is set to get worse.

In Eastern England alone, for example, agriculture is set to lose access to approximately 17 % of water currently used for spray irrigation at the peak of summer, unless a smarter approach to water management is adopted.

Globally, crop irrigation accounts for 70 % of water use worldwide and over 40 % in many OECD countries.

Building resilience to drought and flood – sometimes in the same field – are already priorities for many businesses and researchers to help mitigate the pressing challenges. Predictions for the UK suggest there will be a significant shortfall in the water available for everyone – not least agriculture – unless a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach is adopted, where technology, behavourial change and policy work together.

Water Innovation for Agriculture – 8th February 2023, Cranfield University, MK43 0AL

Agri-TechE is convening an afternoon of discussion and learning with those developing cutting-edge technologies to manage water more effectively. We’ll be considering approaches such as drip irrigation, de-salinisation and novel materials and approaches to increase the water-holding capacity of soils (or other growing medium).