Blog | Agriculture and Water

Management & Regulation, Natural Environment

Agriculture: Water User, Water Polluter, Water Protector

Water is a precious resource. Most of us take it for granted, until we get a dry spell and are reminded that supply is finite. We need water for so many purposes from drinking and washing through to energy generation and food production. And, of course, our wildlife relies on having enough water too. With so many uses, is there enough to go around? …It’s certainly tight says CIWEM Policy Adviser Sarah Anderton!

Water user:

We all need to eat and growing food takes water. Rain doesn’t always fall in the quantities and places it’s needed, so for high value horticultural crops rainfall is supplemented by water abstracted from waterways and reservoirs.

Overall agricultural water use is low compared to other sectors. However, the use peaks in June and July overlap with public demand peaks. As the UK’s population continues to grow, including in areas which already face water scarcity such as the South East of England, domestic water demand increases, impacting on how much water will be available for other uses like agriculture. Population growth also adds the challenge of increasing production to feed more people. We could of course import more food, reducing the amount of water required to grow as much domestically. However, scarcity issues also affect many other countries. Importing may cause environmental and social issues in those areas, adding an ethical dimension to the decision.

Recognising pressures on our water bodies, and so on aquatic habitats, last November the Environment Agency announced its plan for abstraction reform. The three-pronged plan will:

  • End damaging abstraction, though only where it’s cost effective to do so. The EA will make sure water companies take a leading role through the Water Industry National Environment Programme, review time limited licences, adjust licences shown to be seriously damaging, revoke unused licences, regulate all previously exempt significant abstractions and update licensing strategies. Under this pillar the Environment Agency will also shift towards a more flexible system of allowing abstraction when additional water is available.
  • Develop a stronger catchment focus to contribute to updating licensing strategies. This includes working alongside initial priority catchments to find solutions to demand issues, solutions could range from reducing demand to increasing storage infrastructure and water trading.
  • Reforming the system to provide an online service to better enable sharing and trading and bring abstraction licences within the environmental permitting regulations.

Water polluter:

Careless land management causes water pollution. This diffuse pollution is most commonly caused by activities such as: manure, fertiliser and pesticide applications in poor conditions; cultivations that leave ground exposed for long periods, creating a soil erosion risk if weather becomes wet; and some livestock grazing, for example where animals have free access to streams.

Combined, these activities are resulting in a big problem. “More than 50% of nitrate pollution, 25% of phosphate in UK waters and 75% of sediment pollution comes from farming” according to DEFRA. This contributes to Water Framework Directive (WFD) failures, affects the quality of water that may be abstracted for drinking and causes issues for aquatic ecology through toxicity, nutrient enrichment, deoxygenation and siltation.

Nearly a third of WFD failures are attributed to agriculture and land management.

This doesn’t paint a very good picture of agriculture. But fear not, it doesn’t reflect the full reality; many farmers are water protectors.

Water protector:

The Rules-

The new Farming Rules for Water, which came into force 2nd April, are a positive step for water quality. Although the eight rules are very similar to provisions we’ve had under cross compliance they are regulations and so apply to all farmers regardless of whether they claim the Basic Payment. It is reassuring to know that these rules are now in place to provide basic protection when CAP requirements are withdrawn following Brexit.

It’s even more reassuring for the environment that DEFRA see the rules as “a first step towards a new approach to regulating the agriculture sector” indicating that the protection afforded by these rules might yet be strengthened in future.

As a key ask of the future of land management regime we want to see the polluter pays principle applied more strongly. This requires enforcement of regulation to give a baseline. For it to be fair, we also need to see; farmers supported by market incomes, good access to advice and market recognition of added value where it’s created.

Voluntary initiatives-

There are a number of initiatives helping farmers reduce their impact. Examples of this are Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) and the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA).

  • CSF- Run by Natural England in partnership with the Environment Agency and DEFRA, this programme works to affect management changes in target areas through its officers providing farmers with practical, free advice on cost-effective water quality improvements. We are now starting to see this approach rolled out more widely where activity is funded through partners, such as water companies, which is really positive.
  • CaBA- There over 100 CaBA partnerships covering England who interact with more than 1,500 organisations to find joint solutions to water issues. The 2017 CaBA evaluation report stated that “landowners, land managers and farmers are involved with 99 of the 102 partnerships and are most commonly engaged at a high level”.

Payment for additional benefits-

As we shift towards a public money for public goods approach, the new land management system should deliver environmental benefit. Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) also has an important and growing role to play in delivering water quality benefits.

We are increasingly seeing water companies and farmers working together for the benefit of both. Water companies are an obvious purchaser of water quality benefits because reducing the need for processing allows them to make a clear cost saving.

There’s great potential for the PES approach to be rolled out further to deliver multiple benefits to wider groups of purchasers. However, there are several barriers yet to be overcome. We’ve asked that the Government support development of PES, as a potential long-term funding mechanism for environmental benefit, as you can see in my previous blog.

In summary, agriculture will continue to be an important water user as the population grows and we look to address our food security, particularly in the wake of Brexit with trade uncertainty. It is increasingly being recognised that farmers and land managers have huge potential to deliver water benefits through sustainable management of the natural capital they hold, as well as the potential to cause damage. Going forward it will be key that our regulations are enforced, and our farmers have the knowledge and funds to make management choices that provide additional environmental benefit.

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