Suffolk visit for Deputy President focuses on water for food

05 May 2022

NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw at the Felixstowe Hydrocycle Project

An image of NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw visiting the Felixstowe Hydrocycle Project in Suffolk

The importance of water for food took centre stage when NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw visited Suffolk.

Tom, and NFU National Water Resources Specialist Kelly Hewson-Fisher, met with Tim Darby and Douglas Inglis from ESWAG (East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group) to discuss the importance of water for food production and how collaboration across stakeholders will be key in ensuring solutions can be put in place to overcome the challenges facing water resources. 

The agricultural sector is working with the regional water resources planning process, which in East Anglia is through Water Resources East.

“I have known how big the water resource challenge is, but I’ve not been able to completely piece together the solutions and the visit to the Felixstowe Hydrocycle has really helped. I am genuinely inspired."

NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw

The aim is to provide a long-term strategic plan for water resources that looks to meet the needs of agriculture, the environment and the public, which is driven through cooperation and collaboration with other sectors, such as water companies. This will be key in ensuring water resource challenges are met.

Tom and Kelly then joined Tim and John Patrick from Sustainable Water Solutions to visit the Felixstowe Hydrocycle Project

This is an innovative, farmer led, collaborative project to bring sustainably sourced fresh water supplies onto the Felixstowe Peninsula to overcome water resources challenges. 

Crucially, around 40% of vegetable crops in the UK are grown in this region, which have a high water demand. The east is also an area of rapid economic development, with a population of 10.5 million located in three of the UK's fastest growing cities.

Partnership to tackle water management

The overall picture of drought, extreme weather and a surge in food demand means water management is crucial for the future water resources in the east. 

The Felixstowe Hydrocycle Ltd is working in partnership with Suffolk County Council, the Environment Agency and the University of East Anglia and offers a solution to the challenge of securing water for food in the face of climate change and increased competition from public water supply.

The initiative involves five local farms, all with intensive farms growing high value vegetable crops, who are working together to capture drainage water for irrigation. The project consists of a shared water pipeline transfer system and Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) and recovery.

Water pipeline

The project identified that drainage water pumped out to sea by the IDB (Internal Drainage Board) could be reused for irrigation. It was contradictory that water was drained out to sea in a region which experiences both droughts and floods.

The drainage water sourced from near Felixstowe now travels along a 12km pipeline to local farms for use in irrigation. The route chosen was selected to avoid areas of conservation importance and archaeological sites.

In the future, this water could be used in the public water supply, making water supplies more sustainable and resilient to future challenges, while also protecting the environment.

Water storage through chalk aquifers 

The next stage of the scheme involves MAR (Managed Aquifer Recharge). MAR uses the natural water holding capacity of chalk aquifers to store water; surplus water is pumped into drainage ditches, where it infiltrates through the ground and is stored in naturally occurring porous rock.

The recharge of aquifers allows for the surplus water to be stored, supplementing normal winter rainfall, and allowing for stored water to be used for irrigation in times of drought in the spring and summer. MAR is rare in England and this project will assist identification of benefits to this system, providing an example for future projects which may also want to provide abstraction water while also benefitting the environment.

Environmental benefits

The Norfolk and Suffolk broads, the UK’s largest wetland, is recognised as internationally important for providing a habitat to some of the rarest plants and animals in the UK.

Prior to installation of the Felixstowe pipeline, high-volume land drainage pumps were believed to contribute to erosion of the valuable wetland. However, the Felixstowe project helps to minimise this erosion because water is now pumped inland via a 12km pipeline, while also leaving sufficient flow in the river Deben to maintain the integrity of mudflats and saltmarshes.

Maintenance and restoration of the wetlands provides not only habitat restoration, but also protection from the sea by absorbing the influx of storm water, offering a nature-based solution to coastal flooding.

Protection of the wetlands can also contribute to mitigation of climate change through carbon sequestration. Wetlands are considered the most effective carbon sinks on Earth because they create conditions which are water-logged, dark, and very productive, which creates conditions for highly stable carbon content.

As well as providing a sustainable source of water for local businesses, the Felixstowe Hydrocycle Project provides a range of environmental benefits such as, flood management, climate mitigation and ensuring coastal ecosystems and wildlife can benefit by having the drainage water rerouted away from sensitive environments.

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