Recently, the Water for Food Group and the Environment Agency (EA) met to review the prospects for irrigation across the East of England, the South and the Midlands.

The UK Irrigation Association filed the following report:
In summary – soil moisture deficits across the East and South East have been rising steadily and are as high as 60mm in places – the kind of levels normally expected in June.

River flows and groundwater levels are generally below normal for this time of year because of the below average winter and spring rainfall which usually recharges groundwater and in turn maintains base river flows in some catchments though the following year.

Substantial rainfall is needed to make up this deficit and recharge groundwater and, unless we have a summer like 2012, this is only likely in the coming winter period.

The overall message for irrigators is to keep a ‘watching brief’ as the summer unfolds.  We have seen the first trigger for concern which is the dry winter we have just experienced.

Irrigators with reservoirs started full and so their concerns are about how to manage water for this year and whether they will be able fill reservoirs for next year.  Do they hold back some water in case we have another dry winter?  Can they top-up if there are sudden intense rainstorms?

Irrigators on direct abstraction from groundwater and groundwater-fed rivers are likely to face some restrictions as the summer unfolds, as summer rainfall is unlikely to increase availability.  Those in ‘flashy’ clay catchments may benefit from good rainfall events but these are yet unknown.

Water management decisions for all irrigators will of course change as the summer rainfall events unfold and we head for next winter.

EA staff in each area tell us they are in touch with their abstractors on a regular basis, either by sending out bulletins by phone or email, or asking farmers to phone in if they require an update.  During times of water shortage, cooperation among EA staff and irrigators supplying up to date information is a welcome step and enables farmers to assess risks and manage diminishing water resources.

One final thought is on that word ‘drought’. It is a word the EA are reluctant to use, it is emotive, and the press has a habit of leaping on it and blowing issues all out of proportion with thoughts of standpipes in the streets.

We are of course nowhere near this situation and public water supplies are plentiful.  Yet agriculture is already facing serious water shortages.  10 days without water in the main growing season can cause failure for most fruit and veg crops.  We need something that conveys this seriousness without alarm, and saying we have a ‘spell of dry weather’ really does not hit the spot.  It underplays the importance of water for food at a time when we are trying to show that this is just as essential as water for people, for business, and the environment.

Is it time to think again about what we mean by ‘drought’?  Should we try differentiating it into ‘agricultural drought’ ‘water supply drought’, and ‘environmental drought’, as all these impact different people, at different times, and in different ways.

Agricultural drought is an internationally recognised term, and conveys the seriousness of what is happening to food production.  It is a term used in the Environment Agency’s Drought Response: our Framework for England (2015).  Perhaps it is time to call a ‘spade a spade’ at least for agriculture?

For a full report on local conditions in each area go to NFU online click here.  Particular thanks to the Environment Agency for organising this event.