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Water management – an uphill struggle?

“A healthy water environment is essential for people, nature, farming and industry” (DEFRA policy paper, August 2020)– we all know the importance of water to farming and in our daily lives, and in recent years water management has been a significant challenge for many rural businesses. Successful harvests, lambing seasons or grouse numbers can all pivot on the amount and frequency of rainfall. So it is no surprise to find that targets for water management will be some of the legally binding goals written in to the new Environment Bill. The details will take at least 2 years to emerge, but we have been working through the policy paper published last week to gather some indication of which issues might be prioritised and what the consequences may be for farming businesses.

There is already a strong regulatory framework for water – the Farming rules for water came in to force in 2018, River Basin Management Plans were launched in 2015 and the 25 Year Environment Plan published last year set a goal of returning 75% of waters to as close to their natural state as soon as practicable. The targets drawn up as part of the Environment Bill will build on these existing initiatives.

To deliver on the 25 Year Plan’s ambitious goal, the condition of water bodies and courses will need to be measured and monitored, for biological diversity and health (including populations of fish, invertebrates and plants), chemistry (including levels of chemical pollutants), flow, temperature and more. To make progress quickly, DEFRA will focus first on the ‘major [known] causes of environmental degradation…specific pollutants and [on water use]’, and agriculture is named as one of these ‘significant pressures’.

The farming industry has done a lot over the last decade to reduce water pollution, so why does agriculture continue to be a target? Unfortunately, while measures to reduce water pollution have been widely adopted, the pressures of intensification, population growth and climate change are all increasing. The latest Environment Agency figures (2019) show that 40% of water bodies are affected by rural pollution. The two key pollutants are phosphorous and nitrogen, both cause eutrophication, effecting fish, insects and plants and both are likely to be the subject of specific legally binding targets in the new Bill. The government will be compelled to reduce levels of these pollutants, and one of the most effective ways to do that will be to compel farmers to address these issues ‘at source’.

While there is no mention of the phrase in this policy paper, the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle is gaining traction both nationally and internationally. The principle lays the cost of pollution squarely at the door of the individual or business who is introducing the pollutants into the environment. In New Zealand for example, this principle lies behind the recent ultimatum given to the agriculture industry to reduce carbon emissions by 2022 or face financial penalties. If the same principle were applied to water pollution in the UK, the economic effect would be felt across the farming sector.

Currently, some water quality regulations, such as NVZs, must be followed without any financial incentive, and penalties are imposed if a business fails to comply. But in other areas, funding is available via Countryside Stewardship to incentivise practices or fund infrastructure or equipment that helps to reduce pollution. Planting ‘riparian management’ strips, keeping a 12m buffer against a watercourse or installing a sediment trap are all supported by public funding. Some of these measures will continue to be supported through ELM, but we should also be mindful that alongside that support there will almost certainly be a tightening of the regulatory ‘baseline’ for water management, and the cost of not keeping up with those new standards may be high.

The good news is that technology is on our side. Precision agriculture, reduced tillage and improved, data-driven nutrient management will all help to improve water quality and improve efficiency on farm. Phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment entering a water course is not just a cost to the environment, it is a loss to the farm business, so careful investments and changes to management to reduce these losses are a ‘win win’. Taking advantage of the funding available now, whether through productivity grants or stewardship, could help to put your business on the front foot.

There may also be opportunities for farmers to draw on support from the private sector to help finance changes targeted at water quality. Water companies have already committed to investing £4.6 billion over the next 5 years towards environmental improvements. For them, funding ‘upstream’ management that prevents pollution is much more cost effective than removing pollutants downstream. A good example of this is United Utilities’ initiatives in the North West, which include paying farmers to plant cover crops. At the moment, opportunities to access this kind of funding are something of a post-code lottery, but we expect to see them becoming more widespread.

Farmers may be tired of being a target in the environmental ‘blame game’, but water quality issues are increasingly traceable, and some, though not all, can be traced back to agricultural sources. In New Zealand, the agricultural industry has been given a window of opportunity to demonstrate that they can reduce their environmental impact without government-enforced penalties. Perhaps in the UK we should view the next few years as our own window of opportunity – to show that improvements to water quality are possible without increased regulation.

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