The Environment Agency's proposals for bringing time-limited spray irrigation abstraction licences in line with the EU's Water Framework Directive (WFD) would have a major impact on vegetable and potato growers' ability to irrigate, and therefore their yields, a new report commissioned by the NFU from Cranfield University has claimed.
Abstraction licences up for renewal from this year onwards face being restricted to their average actual abstraction over a 2003-09 reference period, which "had a spate of significantly wetter summers, resulting in lower irrigation needs compared to equivalent figures calculated using a much longer-term (30-year) climate record", the report points out.
"Use of this much shorter assessment period would result in very significant water shortages for irrigation abstractors if the weather returned to its longer-run pattern."
The initial impact of the proposals will be mostly felt in the Cam and Ely Ouse catchment in the Anglian Region, where around 50 surface water and 150 groundwater licences are deemed to be at risk.
The report puts the benefit in a dry year to the region's growers - chiefly of vegetables and potatoes - at £40m for abstractors dependent on groundwater and £51m for those using surface water.
For a farm growing only irrigated potatoes, restricting abstraction to the 2003-09 average "would decrease the yield benefit by around 26 per cent", it warns. "Quality premium losses would be additional and substantive."
The "critical issue" of intermittency in licence use "does not appear to have been taken into account by the proposed abstraction changes", an omission that "could have profound unintended impacts on irrigation water use and the economic benefits derived from irrigated production".
The authors of the report call for alternative smarter solutions to the proposals, which they insist would not only lessen economic impact but also help improve environmental sustainability.
Around 1,000 abstraction licences will expire in 2015 and a further 2,200 between 2016 and 2021, according to the Environment Agency. A representative said: "We are working with farmers and the NFU to see how we can meet the environmental duties of the WFD while minimising impact on farmers."
Industry comment - Paul Hammett, National Water Resources Specialist, NFU
"If implemented, these changes will mean that, as a direct result of a constraining and inflexible licensing policy, farmers will have to meet the challenges of future water shortages with one hand tied behind their backs."