Growing concerns in the East as groundwater levels fall

A norfolk reservoir

With aquifers in East Anglia falling to near historically record low levels, farmers and the Environment Agency are increasingly concerned about irrigation prospects for 2020.

Although the situation can change between now and next spring, the Environment Agency (EA) has told the NFU that section 57 restrictions on both surface water and groundwater next year cannot be ruled out.

The NFU and EA have agreed to maintain close contact over the next few months to monitor the situation and the implications it could have for irrigated crop production.

As the current growing season comes to an end, ‘hands off flow’ surface water constraints are in place on a number of licences across East Anglia. Section 57 restrictions are in place on licences on the Essex rivers Upper Chelmer and Colne (where 50% of licensed volume restrictions are in place), and the Stour (full ban in place). The rivers Yare and Tas in Norfolk are under constant review.

The Environment Agency’s flexible licensing arrangements mean that abstractors can apply to abstract water to fill reservoirs before the start of the ‘winter fill’ season on 31 October. However the reality is that, where river flows are falling, there is unlikely to be sufficient water available to allow abstraction for some time. The Agency will consider applications on a case by case basis.

Successful applications may be more likely in the fenland catchments, where water could be utilised while IDBs are gearing up for pumping water out of their systems.

Abstractors who are successful in gaining access to reservoir water out of season should allocate volumes against 2018/19 licensed allocations up until 31 August, and then include water abstracted on or after 1 September in their 2019/20 returns.

The Environment Agency has felt less able to offer flexible licensing arrangements in 2019 compared to 2018, partly as a result of lower aquifer levels this year.

The NFU has asked for a more clear and transparent determination process, and the Agency has promised to review and publish its updated guidance on this issue.

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