Protecting the water supply for your crops

The variable weather conditions have shown how important it is to protect your water supply.

There are a number of things you can do right now to ensure your water supply is resilient during times of severe weather.

This information sets out how to review water sources available in your area, audit your current water usage, consider options for recycling, storage or improving irrigation efficiency and offers information on negotiating a mains water contract.

It also covers why it's important to check your water abstraction licences are appropriate and shares advice on how to plan for water supply interruptions.

Review water sources available in your area

Water supply needs to meet both daily and annual requirements and may include one or more of the following:

  • Mains water is supplied to farms by wholesalers as part of the public supply network
  • Abstracted water/private water supply is taken from rivers, streams, ponds, wells, boreholes and even drains
  • Water harvesting/recycled water is that caught from roofing or captured to be reused, potentially after storage
  • Stored water is held in reservoirs, ponds and tanks
  • Emergency water supplies can be obtained from specialist companies providing tankered water.

Who is the environmental regulator?

The environment regulator means Environment Agency (EA) in England, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in Wales, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in Northern Ireland.

Audit current water use

A water audit could help identify where water could be used more efficiently or captured and recycled. It could also suggest that storage or a backup source may be required. The audit should include:

  • Recording weekly/monthly water use by different production areas
  • Options for harvesting or recycling water, e.g. from buildings
  • Available and potential water storage capacity
  • Types of irrigation systems used and an assessment of their efficiency, based on crop growth/quality
  • Consideration of how crop water demand is assessed and applications of water scheduled
  • An assessment of how long the crops could cope if water was interrupted.

Consider recycling, storage and improving irrigation

Rainwater can be collected from roofing in a process known as water harvesting. There may also be the option for irrigation water to be recycled within some systems. This water typically requires physical or chemical treatment and should not be used where potable water is required, e.g. it may not be suitable for edible crops.

Reservoirs can greatly improve water resilience throughout the irrigation season. Taking water daily and storing it requires little energy and can accommodate a low source flow. They can be used to store water abstracted or harvested through the winter at peak flow or rainfall periods.

Reservoir construction requires planning permission and meeting regulatory requirements so can be expensive projects. This has been financially supported through various Government grant schemes in the past.

The installation and use of water storage tanks can provide some short-term resilience. Tanks should be sized to provide a minimum of 48 hours’ water requirements during peak irrigation demand in the event of a mains failure.

Ensure more efficient irrigation through use of new equipment, e.g. drip/trickle irrigation or sprinklers, or invest in new technology, e.g. scheduling software. If considering a change in equipment, the UK Irrigation Association has a wealth of information. You may need to vary your abstraction licence to account for different application techniques, such as use of trickle or drip irrigation.

Increasing efficiency of water use doesn’t always mean investing in technology. Simple actions such as checking that water is being applied as uniformly as possible, avoiding the creation of run-off, and repairing damaged or leaking equipment will all conserve water.

Negotiate mains water contract

Mains water is supplied to farms by wholesalers. Changes introduced in April 2017 mean business customers (including farmers and growers) now have an intermediary retailer providing billing and other services.

Mains water is the most convenient source but also the most expensive. Prices can be up to 15 times that of abstracted water. Shop around different retailers to ensure you are on the best tariff (find information on the Open Water website). You may find that an interruptible tariff saves you money if you have a backup source or storage. Negotiating for a tariff without sewerage charges is also possible if water is only used for irrigation.

Check your water abstraction licences

Trickle irrigation is no longer exempt from abstraction licensing in England and Wales. Growers using trickle or drip irrigation and previously operating under the exemption need to apply for a licence with the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales.

Water abstracted from rivers, streams, ponds, wells, boreholes and even drains may require an abstraction licence from the environmental regulator if volumes are above a certain daily limit (either 10 or 20 cubic metres). The cost of abstracted water is much cheaper in winter (November to March) than during summer (April to October).

Some ‘old’ licences were issued as a permanent licence of right but most new licences since 1991 are now time-limited and subject to regular review. In England, licences in the same catchment areas are reviewed at the same time. Renewal volumes are linked to past use, so you may be granted a lower annual volume.

Headroom is having a greater amount of water available in licence conditions than average use. It acts as an insurance policy for businesses against dry weather when water usage is higher. Unused or underused licences may be revoked or reduced by the environmental regulator to manage the potential risk to the environment.

You can review your licensed water and headroom using a software tool such as D-Risk which can also provide insights into abstraction-related risks in crop production.

Water shortage restrictions: What you need to know

  • Hands-off Flow or Hands-off-Level conditions on licences may place constraints on abstraction when river flow or groundwater level is below those set for environmental protection. Daily permission from the environmental regulator may be required to continue abstraction
  • Temporary Use Bans (TUBs but also known as Hosepipe Bans) apply to domestic or other non-commercial premises only
  • There is a statutory exception from Drought Order restrictions for irrigating plants that are grown or kept for sale or commercial use
  • The Government may issue a Section 57 emergency restriction on abstraction for spray irrigation. There is an exemption for crops grown under protection and container-grown crops.

Plan for water supply interruptions

In the event of an interruption to the mains supply network, you should contact the water wholesaler in the first instance. Water Plus has information to help you find your wholesaler. Retailers may be able to support you if the matter relates to private infrastructure, e.g. if they offer leak repair or other similar activities. Follow up with the retailer for any support in ensuring the wholesaler acts to restore your water supply.

Restrictions on abstraction may occur due to Hands-off Flow conditions being reached in watercourses. There is also the possibility of Government banning spray irrigation in emergency conditions. If these are in place, you must comply with the restriction and should keep in touch daily for any changes.

The ability to switch supply could be a lifeline if issues arise. Businesses with mains water could consider boreholes to abstract groundwater, while those abstracting for irrigation directly from watercourses may find that stored water in a winter-filled reservoir provides a more reliable source in summer months when restrictions are in place. Likewise, the ability to switch to mains supply when unable to abstract water, although more expensive, could be a possibility.

It is becoming easier to trade spare licensed water volume between licence holders on a temporary or permanent basis. Typically, this involves one party reducing their abstraction volume, while another, abstracting from the same source, is allowed to take more than their licensed amount. Trades require approval from the environmental regulator. Trading of surface abstraction is usually easier to accomplish than trading of groundwater, since more complicated analysis may be required.

Burst pipes may be on your side of the meter or on the public water supply system. Depending on your supplier’s policy, you may be responsible for locating and repairing the leak, and paying for the water used (or wasted) during the leak.

To avoid unexpected charges and track leakage, put a process in place to monitor for potential leaks, either through regular meter readings or using leak detection services.

Emergency water tankering can be arranged through specialist companies such as Water Direct and Wincanton.

Consider your irrigation strategy depending on crop value and contracts. In extreme conditions, a decision may be needed on whether to irrigate the whole crop area at a lower rate, or to irrigate fully scheduled amount across a reduced crop area.

Irrigation of stressed cereal crops during drought may be worthwhile if the equipment and water licence is available.

More information

AHDB Horticulture Factsheet Establishing a resilient water supply

Licenses and permits

EA for Water abstraction or impoundment licence application (England) SEPA for Abstractions (Scotland) NRW for Water abstraction or impoundment licence application (Wales) NIEA for Abstraction and impoundment licensing requirements (N Ireland)

Water situation reports

Water situation reports for England Water scarcity (Scotland) How we manage Wales’ water resources Rivers and lough levels (N Ireland)

Weather data

AHDB WeatherHub