Despite widespread downpours at the beginning of this month, the Environment Agency reported that Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, and west Norfolk are still in drought. And while river flows and reservoir levels have improved, groundwater in East Anglia is still exceptionally low.
Meanwhile, without prolonged rainfall, the report states, the Midlands, east and south-east England remain vulnerable to drought this spring and summer.
Among the water companies, Anglian already has two drought permits allowing for extra abstraction from the River Nene and South East Water was granted a three-month drought order on 21 December to refill its Ardingly Reservoir.
The agency's report suggests that more applications are expected in the South East and that public water restrictions cannot be ruled out. Nursery owners and growers are, of course, no strangers to the implications of water shortages after prolonged dry weather and high demand resulted in eight water companies imposing hosepipe bans in 2006.
So with warning bells already sounding, what are nurseries doing to maximise their water efficiency? Are our reservoirs half full or half empty?
Following the early January deluges, the 15,900cu m reservoir at Cheshire-based Bents Garden Centre is nearly full, but a 4,500cu m extension plan for the man-made lake has been given the go-ahead. Along with a recycling and rainwater-harvesting system, the reservoir, which also serves as a visitor attraction, will ensure that Bents can remain entirely self-sufficient well into the future.
Similarly, at Howard Nurseries in Norfolk plans are in the pipeline to increase the volume of the 24ha site's existing reservoir by 9,000cu m. The expansion will give owner David Howard the security of knowing that at full capacity he can store 22,730cu m of water - enough to feed his crops through a season without rainfall or mains use.
"At the moment I am relying on mother nature and I must confess in mid December I was very worried. But things have improved since the downpours," he says. "Long term if the dry conditions persist there could be serious implications for us, but I'm confident for this year."
Meanwhile, at Hampshire-based Hillier Nurseries a brimming 17,275cu m reservoir and a fully integrated harvesting and recycling system mean that nursery production manager David Hooker is confident of water stocks for the year ahead. But he says they are still doing everything they can to continually review and improve water use on the site.
Following trials in 2009, the nursery implemented a combination of Evaposensor moisture sensors and irrigation controls designed to determine and apply exactly the right amount of moisture needed by the stock.
The system, which has enabled Hooker to halve water use on outside beds, is currently in effect across 30 per cent of the nursery. "By the end of the year we hope to have increased that to 60 per cent," he says. "You can't really do it all in one go because it means that you have to upgrade irrigation panels, which is quite costly and a lot of work."
Hooker says it is important for nurseries to have long-term plans in place to ensure that they are self-sufficient in the event of drought and water restrictions. "We know water resources are going to continue to be squeezed in the future but we can't react to just one season because it involves capital expenditure and planning," he explains. "For us it is an ongoing process with a long-term view so that when these situations come along we are better able to cope."
Lowaters Nursery director Charles Carr is also implementing the Evaposensor system after carrying out trials at the Southampton wholesale business. He intends to install the system on around 1.2ha of the site, which has been free from mains water for 18 months, and he says the benefits are not just in water conservation. "We have seen an improvement in crop quality through using the sensor system because we are applying just the right amount of water, but it is also because our water quality is better."
Carr explains that by investing in a rainwater harvesting and irrigation system he has been able to keep his reservoir "healthy" and provide his stock with a higher standard of water. Nursery owners, he maintains, have a responsibility to their business and the environment to take the time to access the many free studies available, such as those available from the Horticultural Development Company, on water use.
"There has been a lot of work looking at this and there is a lot of information out there. Those who make the time to look at it and implement things as required can only benefit. Of course there is a big initial outlay but it has a long-term payback," he points out.
Consultant agronomist Chris Burgess says nurseries that still use a lot of mains water are not only leaving themselves open to possible restrictions during the spring and summer but, due to water pressure dropping as a result of increasing demand, they are less likely to have access to the amount they require. "One of the best ways to get year-round security of supply is by installing a reservoir," he adds.
But for many smaller nurseries the issue is often one of space. One way of creating the extra land needed to install a reservoir is to look at the balance between space available and crop production.
Nursery consultant John Adlam explains: "You can reduce your bed area outside by putting more of your crop under protection, which will also increase production. That way you would have more space for a reservoir."
According to Adlam, the move towards rainwater harvesting and recycling irrigation is on the rise. "We are seeing a definite trend of growers considering and changing to recycling and water conservation measures, particularly rainwater harvesting and recycling irrigation water. It is a very cost-effective solution."
But to ensure rainwater does not fall under Environment Agency jurisdiction, growers must ensure that they isolate any rainwater collected from beds, glasshouses and tunnels. If it touches the ground before it is abstracted for recycling, theoretically the nursery must have an abstraction licence for it.
"The agency can choose not to enforce it but if it needs to be very careful in an area because of dry conditions then theoretically it could do that. So it's important that if growers are thinking about collecting rainwater they isolate those areas from the ground and then there can be no dispute who owns it," he explains.
Adlam says despite recent rains the current ground and stored water situation is cause for concern and growers should already be requesting flexibility on their abstraction licences this year.
"Defra has been flexible with this in the past but this coming year I think it will be far more selective in its response because based on the water resources available in the soil and rivers it simply won't be able to give a blanket approval for all growers in a region to abstract for longer."
Another potential way of increasing the volume of water that nurseries can abstract to supply their stock is by licence trading. Adlam works with growers who need access to more water but do not have a licence to cover it and puts them in contact with others in their region who may no longer need the volume of water granted to them on their abstraction licence.
Through this system growers can increase their water intake for little outlay while others can avoid having their unused water rights reclaimed by the Environment Agency. "It's a use-it-or-lose-it system," he explains. "Water trading is a valuable tool in overcoming water restrictions that may affect nurseries. It is cost-effective and it may be the only way they can get water."
Although Adlam strongly advocates growers doing all they can to conserve water and improve efficiency, he points out that they, along with the nation's farmers, use only two per cent of the country's water. "That is a fact that people need to be aware of before they panic about our use."
Water use advice
Nursery consultant John Adlam's tips:
- Check your water reserves and availability.
- Make sure that your water use is highly efficient because it pays off in reduced water demand.
- Distribution of water is critical so make sure that the bed receives an even volume of water.
- Check whether your equipment needs updating or whether you have leaks around your nursery.
- Look at adjusting your growing media to improve water-holding capacity without compromising porosity.
- Check water quality. It must not clog up your equipment, reducing output and efficiency, so look at your filtration and water treatment.
- Consider the equipment that controls your irrigation system and think about using new products on the market that can enhance this.
- Growers should be aware of legislation. Drip irrigation is legal to use without a licence but that will soon come to an end.
- Educate staff to apply just enough water to plants.
- Consider trading an abstraction licence with another grower in your area.