Memorandum by Keith Weatherhead (DWB 11)
I am employed as a Senior Lecturer at Cranfield
University at Silsoe, specialising in irrigation and agricultural
water resources. My present research includes work for the Environment
Agency on optimum agricultural water use and licensing issues,
and for the DETR on the impacts of climate change on agricultural
and leisure water use. I am also currently deputy Chairman of
the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA), and Chairman of the National
Agricultural Water Resources Liaison Group, which brings together
representatives of MAFF, DETR, the Environment Agency, CLA, NFU,
UKIA and ADAS.
The responses in this memorandum are my own,
and not necessarily those of my employer or any other organisation.
These responses refer only to those aspects
of the draft Water Bill that would affect abstraction for the
purpose of irrigation.
Abstraction for agricultural irrigation represents
less than 2 per cent of the total water abstraction in England
and Wales, but it is important both because of its potential environmental
impact and as an essential input for much of the agricultural
and horticultural production in the UK.
The relatively small depths applied and its
concentration on particular crops mean that irrigation can be
a high-value use of water in this country. The impact of additional
water constraints on the viability of many commercial agricultural
and horticultural enterprises would be substantial, with resultant
effects on rural employment, national production and the balance
of payments. Some irrigated sectors, particularly glasshouses,
will not survive at all without adequate, reliable, good quality
water. Many "downstream" sectors, eg vegetable packing
and distribution, are also substantial employers at least partly
dependent on irrigated production.
The trade and employment contributions of irrigation
through the golf industry, the racehorse industry, sports pitches,
and other leisure uses should similarly not be forgotten.
However, because irrigation abstraction is concentrated
in the drier countries, in the drier months of the drier years,
and is mostly consumptive, it can have significant environmental
impacts. It is the major abstractor on some catchments in drought
periods. Clearly environmental protection is important, and sometimes
paramount in water management. Nevertheless, I believe that many
of the potential conflicts can be avoided by good management within
a flexible and fair system.
The objective of the legislative changes must
therefore be to provide a flexible and fair framework within which
the Agency can manage water, rather than simply administer regulations.
Generally, the contribution of this draft bill, read in conjunction
with the ongoing CAMS process and other changes, towards sensible
and sustainable water management policies, is to be welcomed.
This draft Bill is one product of a long (and
welcome) process of consultation undertaken by the DETR and the
Environment Agency, which has already resolved many of the potential
problems. Only some of the outstanding issues are therefore addressed
here. For simplicity, they are addressed in the order of the relevant
Clause 1. Temporary licences
The introduction of temporary licences is a
sensible and simple way of allowing the Environment Agency to
manage short-term abstractions. However, the 28 day limit seems
to be arbitrary, and is too short for many temporary irrigation
needs, eg establishing new landscape plantings or turf grass for
sports pitches. Provided the Agency are satisfied that there are
no adverse environmental impacts, the Agency should have the power
to issue longer duration temporary licences, or a monthly renewable
licence. (It is not clear whether the Agency could anyway issue
a series of temporary licences under these proposals, but that
would lead to greater uncertainty and possibly inefficient water
Clause 3. Rights to abstract small quantities
The setting of a common threshold is sensible.
20 cubic metres a day is well below the irrigation requirements
of agricultural users, but will be useful for small horticultural
units (eg glasshouses), for non-irrigation agricultural use and
for some landscaping and sports uses. It may help reduce the present
trend towards using drinking water for irrigation in such circumstances.
The agency will have to beware the possibility
of large numbers of domestic abstractors taking significant total
quantities from some streams for garden irrigation. It may be
that additional safeguards are required to protect minimum flows
in small streams.
Clause 4. Trickle irrigation
The inclusion of trickle irrigation in the licensing
system is sensible. It is important however that acceptable transition
arrangements are made for existing trickle irrigators.
Because of the potential of lower water use
with trickle systems, it is important that new trickle irrigators
are able to enter the irrigation industrya system of local
licence trading would be particularly beneficial for this.
I note incidentally that the case study of the
costs for a trickle irrigator presented in the associated Regulatory
Impact Assessment is quite unrealistic.
Clauses 5 to 8. Applications for a licence.
The intention to simplify and speed up the licence
application procedure is very welcome. It would be beneficial
if the Environment Agency undertook the publication of all licence
applications, and included a web site in the publication procedure.
The cost of environment impact assessments may
become prohibitive for small abstractors; joint assessments covering
groups of abstractors should be encouraged, rather than requiring
each abstractor to repeat (or pay again for) studies.
Clause 14. Claims arising out of water abstraction
This is a potentially worrying clause for irrigation
abstractors because its effects are quite unknown. Damage may
unwittingly be caused many miles downstream from the abstraction
point, and by the aggregated effects of many abstractors rather
than any particular one. It is not clear how any damages and costs
would be apportioned, how large the legal expenses could become
in such cases, or how much insurance companies would charge to
insure against such costs.
I would urge the DETR to undertake more research
into this, at the least to enable abstractors and insurers to
assess the implications more clearly.
Clause 15. Revocation of unused licences
Clearly, completely unused licences should be
revoked. However, there is little published information of the
reasons why many licences do appear to be "sleepers".
In some cases, they could be providing an invaluable insurance
as a resource of last resort, despite being apparently unused.
In other cases, temporary land-use changes, crop rotation requirements,
or licence conditions may have led to non-use. In some cases at
least, it appears to be due to errors in the Agency database.
For a weather-dependant use like irrigation, a four years period
may not indicate real use, particularly where an abstractor has
more than one source and leaves one unused in wetter years.
(a) I would therefore like to see further
research into the reasons licences are or appear to be unused
or partly unused.
(b) The legal definition of "unused"
should not simply be zero abstraction for four consecutive years,
particularly if those are four wet years when irrigation demand
(c) On the other hand, the criteria for judging
use should include the concept of beneficial usesimply
turning on the tap once every four years should not be enough.
Clause 16. Agency transfer of licences
The existing Act gives the Agency powers to
transfer abstraction licences from one water company to another,
and the proposed Clause 16 allows the Agency to recover the costs
from one to compensate the other. There will be instances when
sensible water management would require the reallocation of licences
to, from, or between other types of abstractor. Where voluntary
arrangements cannot be made, it would be sensible for the Agency
to have these back-up powers with respect to all types of abstractors.
Clause 17. Licences of right and other non time-limited
Other than in this clause, the draft Bill and
documentation interestingly make no mention of one of the major
current problems in water management, the legacy of licences of
right and other non time-limited licences. These will continue
to be non time-limited.
In fact however, the DETR should be congratulated
on developing a framework that in time will effectively minimise
the differences between these licences and new licences, and will
provide encouragement for holders to convert to time-limited status.
This Clause seems to be a reasonable compromise
between the needs of protecting the environment and protecting
the legitimate interests of existing licence holders. I would
hope however that any licence holder affected by this Clause would
be treated similarly to other licence holders in the catchment.
Clause 53. Enforceable duty to use abstracted
I do not understand why the "enforceable
duty to use water abstracted under licence efficiently" proposed
in Taking Water Responsibly has been dropped and replaced
by the duty, only on water companies, to further water conservation.
Despite the acknowledged difficulties of defining and enforcing
efficient use. I believe in principle that all abstractors should
be under a duty to use water wisely, and that sanctions (such
as suspension of licence) should be available wherever water is
clearly being used unwisely. This duty should extend to all licensed
abstractors, or even all abstractors.
Clause 49Reservoir safety
The proposed changes to the Reservoir Act to
make the Environment Agency responsible for both water and safety
regulation are sensible, and should help to ensure common standards
for reservoir safety. I note that the local authority will still
be involved at the planning and construction stages, particularly
where soils or minerals are being moved on or off-site.
Work in progresslicence trading
It is unfortunate that the DETR proposals on
the use of economic instruments and licence trading are not available
for consideration alongside the draft Bill.
I support voluntary local abstraction licence
trading within the irrigation sector, and believe this can lead
to better use of water resources.
I am wary of the prospect of trading between
sectors. The differences in size, structure and resources between
agricultural abstractors and water companies are so great that
monopolistic behaviour and/or "too small to bother"
attitudes by larger companies may stop realistic trading and negate
any potential economic benefits. Protective "buying-up"
of licences by water companies could have profound effects for
future agricultural and rural employment prospects in some catchments.
I believe this issue is much wider than simply efficient water
allocation and needs further consideration.