Defra has been urged to take into account the needs of farmers surrounding water abstraction as water for food is an “essential use”.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said there is no 'justification' for ending compensation to farmers in proposed changes in water abstraction licences.
The comments come in response to Defra’s consultation, Improving the Management of Water in the Environment, where the CLA have highlighted how it is 'simply wrong' for the government to propose revoking licences without 'proper redress'.
Defra may give the Environment Agency increased powers so that it could vary or revoke abstraction rights without having to offer compensation to farmers.
These powers could be used where the agency identifies a risk of future environmental harm arising from water abstraction.
But the CLA argues that any variation of licences to abstract water should be used as a last resort with water companies encouraged to reduce leakages, consumers pushed to be more efficient, and farmers urged to trade water and invest in winter storage facilities, first.
The consultation follows commitments made by the government for clean and plentiful water and to reduce the risks of harm from environmental hazards, as set out in the 25 Year Plan on the Environment.
In addition, the water industry is to invest £50 billion over the next five years to improve water quality and drought resilience across the UK.
However, Susan Twining, CLA’s Chief Land Use Policy Adviser, said many water abstraction licences have been in place for 'decades', and the needs of food production must be prioritised.
She said they 'form a vital part of many businesses’ asset base'. “It is only fair that they should generate full compensation for commercial losses if taken away,” Ms Twining said.
The group's response also highlights concerns over the importance of fresh water to efficient crop and livestock production.
While water use is complex and with many end-users and stakeholders, the CLA argues that Defra should be taking into account the needs of farmers and landowners and water for food should be classified as an “essential use”.
Mrs. Twining added: “Given the importance of food production, as well as the growing concerns around climate and health pushing demand for locally grown fruit and vegetables, water for food production should be equal in status to water for public supply.
“This would mean added protection in drought situations, additional investment and research in water management and the building of resilience through better winter storage.”