Water, soils and legal matters Richard Smith of the Environment Agency outlines the new Farming Rules for Water and offers a practical perspective on enforcing the laws on water and soils
Water runoff following the harvesting of maize
Dealing with muddy runoff incidents caused by polluted water entering watercourses is nothing new in pollution law when this involves discharges from industry, for example, where construction sites discharge contaminated muddy water. However, there has not been a culture of enforcing muddy runoff from fields. The Environment Agency has powers to deal with muddy field runoff, and we have acted in a few cases where soil erosion has caused water pollution. This legislation is for serious offences and involves criminal litigation.
The Environmernt Agency can prosecute, serve notices, issue warnings and give advice and guidance
Farming rules for water
The Environment Agency has new powers with the introduction of the Farming Rules for Water that deal with soils and runoff causing diffuse pollution. These new rules came into force in April 2018 and include a requirement on farmers to test soils at least every five years where land is cultivated. These new rules introduce a slightly different approach where we do not have to collect evidence showing water pollution, since the law states that ‘a land manager must ensure that reasonable precautions are taken to prevent agricultural diffuse pollution resulting from land management and cultivation practices on agricultural land’. We have to take a pragmatic way to enforce this and will use the definition of soil erosion in the regulations: ‘soil runoff or degradation over a single area of agricultural land of at least one hectare’. This does not necessarily mean just relating to erosion gulleys over an area of one hectare. It can include areas of compacted land causing muddy runoff over one hectare. For example, runoff from compacted stubbles where there are wheel ruts causing muddy runoff, with a risk of this runoff entering a nearby watercourse. In practice, we are more likely to get involved in the more serious cases where the problems are obvious. Situations unlikely to breach the rules would be localised muddy runoff associated with tramlines, gateways and field corners. Compacted land or saturated land on relatively level ground without evidence of muddy runoff would also be compliant. The issue is where there is obvious soil loss. More guidance is given in the link. Enforcement
The Environment Agency can prosecute, serve notices, issue warnings and give advice and guidance. Our approach is case-by-case depending on circumstance and scale. Our approach in the first instance is likely to be to give advice and guidance, and to work with farmers. The skill is to tease out bad practice in the context of the weather and to take into account any history of muddy runoff. The new rules are an important step providing a baseline standard and metric for soils and water pollution that can be applied to all forms of land management. FIND OUT MORE Farming Rules for Water – Getting full value from fertilisers and soil, March 2018, Defra https://bit.ly/2uVDeiS You can read Richard’s case history on soil compaction on page 18.
Dr Richard Smith is a technical specialist at the Environment Agency, Devon and Cornwall Area. Richard can be reached on 01392 352 1293 and richard.p.smith@ environment-agency.gov.uk
6 Organic Farming Spring 2019