Water Harvest

No farm can survive without water, and with Britain's unpredictable weather many are looking at alternatives to relying on rain.

In England, just four per cent of crops, by area, are irrigated, yet they give 20 per cent of crop value.Water is without doubt a commodity worth having, but with increasingly stringent regulation, and the onerous cost of abstraction licences, it can be difficult to have enough for the season. The weather is unpredictable and, with climate change, likely to become more extreme, leading to more drought years. So what should farmers be doing to safeguard their businesses and ensure they have enough water when they need it?

“Tackling water issues is a conversation that only seems to rear its head when there is a shortage rather than an abundance,” says Peter Bennett of Savills Agribusiness. “As summer abstraction is 10 times more expensive than winter abstraction, looking at winter storage options is often a good place to start.”

Paul Hammett, national water resource specialist at the NFU, agrees that the logical approach is to capture water when there is a high flow rate or a surplus, to then use in times of scarcity. “Traditionally, water is abstracted in the summer when it is needed, but longer, hotter and drier summers are predicted, which will result in reduced ground and surface water availability,” he says.

Create your own storage

Building a reservoir can offer a solution but it does involve significant capital costs and it is important to obtain planning and environmental permissions right at the start, says Felix Carter, of Savills Agribusiness. The first things to set out are the water requirement, water availability, required size of reservoir and a site. The list of permissions is long and includes: an abstraction licence, planning permission, Environment Agency approval, access and legal agreements covering mineral, environmental and archaeological concerns.

It is the environmental and archaeological issues that can be the most expensive and time consuming, says Dr Keith Weatherhead, professor of water resources and climate adaptation at Cranfield University. “It is worth doing an initial search or scoping study to detect any historic remains or vulnerable wildlife nearby.These can help avoid problems further down the line.”

In the design and construction phase, it is important to choose the right reservoir design and features, looking at the soil and geology, as well as safety and regulations. If it is possible to build on a clay soil this can keep costs down significantly compared to building on other soil types and having to use a synthetic liner.

“Capital costs are typically around £2 per m³ of usable storage for unlined reservoirs and £4 per m³ for lined reservoirs,” says Keith.

Reservoirs require huge inputs of time and money, and take several years to complete. Although the Environment Agency and Defra are encouraging the construction of reservoirs, grants are limited and very difficult to obtain. An alternative is to form a joint venture or collaborate with water companies, which can provide more viable funding opportunities.

“Even if funding is not readily available, we need to look to the future and though it is difficult to justify the returns, a reservoir can offer long-term protection to businesses,” says Felix.

“On top of business security, other benefits are likely to be a 20 per cent uplift in the value of land as well as the protection of assets,”he adds.“Day-to-day costs and water savings are not the main factors for reservoir construction.” It will mainly be fruit and vegetable growers as well as some cereal growers in drier, over-abstracted areas who would benefit from a reservoir, but they’re not really justifiable for other sectors or small-scale operations.

Catching raindrops

However, there are other ways farmers can help source their own water. Rainwater harvesting can boost water supplies without having to abstract ground or surface water. “Collecting roof run-off water from glass houses can provide enough water for farmers with greenhouses to irrigate all year round most years,” says Peter.

Covered cropping and polytunnel users are often obliged to collect water to avoid flooding. It is possible to dig a ditch on clay soil or use a lined gutter on more permeable soils, diverting the water to a storage reservoir where it can then be pumped back for later use.

Recycling resources

Livestock farmers can use roof water in washing down collecting yards, while many dairy farmers will recycle water from their plate coolers to use in cleaning the parlour. However, the fear of water contamination can deter some farmers. “It is important to check water quality if it is being used for livestock drinking troughs and particularly ready-to-eat crops such as salads, but this is likely a part of the buyer protocols,” adds Felix.

Farmers can also join a local water abstraction group to share common interests and problems. “They offer good knowledge exchange and can provide a good channel of communication to the Environment Agency. They usually form in response to a particular issue but it is well worth considering setting one up.” Felix also suggests inviting an Environment Agency representative to talk on the subject and provide information on local water resources.



Key contacts

Philip Gready

Philip Gready

Executive Director
Rural, Energy & Projects Division

Savills Margaret Street

+44 (0) 20 3107 5470

+44 (0) 20 3107 5470


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