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What is the Felixstowe Hydrocycle? And what does it do?

The River Deben estury at Felixstowe, part of Hydrocycle. Photo: EADT archive/Mike Page
The River Deben estury at Felixstowe, part of Hydrocycle. Photo: EADT archive/Mike Page

Suffolk seems an idyllic landscape; the country's driest region – in terms of rainfall – is blessed with a beautiful coastline, wonderful estuaries and an extensive river network.

Yet farmers have long struggled with the conundrum of getting the right amount of water in the right place at the right time. Now, as everyone becomes increasingly ware of climate change and water management, these struggles are being felt by us all.

'We have huge challenges in this part of the world,' says Andrew Williams, of Home Farm Nacton. 'By the middle of the century we need to find twice the amount of water we have access to now in order to service industry, domestic use, the environment and agriculture.'

Now a pioneering scheme by six farmers on the Felixstowe Peninsula may help to provide the answer – and it could soon be rolled out along the east coast, benefitting not only agriculture but wildlife, the natural landscape and our public water supply.

Called the Felixstowe Hydrocycle, this new pipeline, pumping and storage system has been created to stop drainage water being wasted and make freshwater available when it is needed most, for irrigation throughout the summer.

Great British Life: Irrigation is about getting the right amount of water to the right place at the right time. Photo: James BassIrrigation is about getting the right amount of water to the right place at the right time. Photo: James Bass

Although still in its infancy, the initiative is attracting attention throughout Europe and there are hopes that other farming communities will follow its lead soon.

'We're looking at replicating this on the other side of the river at Hollesley,' says John Patrick, managing director of Felixstowe Hydrocycle. 'But there are sites all along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast where this would work.'

John, who also works with colleagues in running a consultancy called Sustainable Water Solutions, has identified 21 locations where there is existing infrastructure, and says it’s possible for a dozen to be in place in the next 10 years.

National demand for water has been increasing not just in agriculture, but also for industry and household use, and as pressure on supplies increases, the Environment Agency has declared it will be restricting access to water for farmers in certain areas. Where rivers and boreholes cannot be pumped sustainably, permission to do so will be refused from as soon as next year. This could prove catastrophic for some landowners, not just in terms of their livelihoods, but also for continuing food production.

Great British Life: Felixstowe Hydrocycle was jointly funded by a group of local farmers and an EU grant established by Fresh4C. Photo: Catherine LarnerFelixstowe Hydrocycle was jointly funded by a group of local farmers and an EU grant established by Fresh4C. Photo: Catherine Larner

People have been discussing this issue over the past 10 years in an initiative organised by the county council called the Suffolk Holistic Water Management project, led by Jane Birch. 'She understood how water impacts the whole community,' says John, pointing out that 15 different stakeholders along the route of the River Deben were involved, including farmers. Flooding, water quality and even the hierarchy of water usage were considered.

'We're all using the same water supply and you and I in our homes need to be able to turn on our taps. But is that water to wash your car or to keep you alive? And what about having enough water for growing food? If you look at ‘virtual water’ you can see how much is used in the production of everyday items such as a pair of jeans or a cup of coffee. We need to learn how to value water. And as farmers are having to change their behaviour, we need to encourage everyone to change theirs too.'

Even though we're seeing more rainfall in the winter through our changing climate, this is often lost to flooding and not captured for use in the dry summer months. 'As a country, we built more above-ground reservoirs during the Second World War than we have since the privatisation of the water companies,' says John. 'They’re costly, unsightly and have archaeological and planning restrictions, but we need to have means of storing the water until it’s needed.'

Great British Life: Felixstowe Hydrocycle's pump at Kingsfleet. Photo: Catherine LarnerFelixstowe Hydrocycle's pump at Kingsfleet. Photo: Catherine Larner

At Kingsfleet, at the mouth of the Deben, surplus water which runs off the towns of Felixstowe and Ipswich and nearby farms, collects in a natural basin. This used to be where Edward III moored his ships before he went to fight the Spanish. 'And then land became more important than fighting Spaniards,' says John, 'so they put [up] a sea wall to stop the saltwater coming in and formed a lake.'

Over many years, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of drainage water has been pumped out of this area which could have been used for irrigation and reservoirs just a few yards away. And the process has been damaging the precious saltmarsh, an ecosystem which is believed to absorb as much carbon per hectare as the Amazon rainforest. 'Why were we pumping freshwater into the North Sea when we were running out of water for the land?' says John. This prompted the creation of the Felixstowe Hydrocycle.

Working with Suffolk County Council, the Environment Agency, the Internal Drainage Board and the University of East Anglia, farmers devised a scheme in which 600,000 cubic metres of drainage water were pumped from Kingsfleet along 12km of pipeline to six farms inland. Here it was stored in 14 existing reservoirs and lagoons ready for irrigation.

It was a formidable achievement, but they also took part in a research project for ‘managed aquifer recharge’ (MAR) whereby layers underneath the ground are used to store natural water with no need to build new reservoirs.

Great British Life: John Patrick, of Felixstowe Hydrocycle, at Kingsfleet on the River Deben. Photo: Catherine LarnerJohn Patrick, of Felixstowe Hydrocycle, at Kingsfleet on the River Deben. Photo: Catherine Larner

'If we're getting to a point where our groundwater is getting depleted, there must be room ‘downstairs’,' says John. 'We wanted to explore how we could get water back in there.' Trenches and lagoons have been built to allow the water to seep into the ground when it is plentiful; it can then be extracted for irrigation when needed.

The scheme has cost £2million to establish, jointly funded by the group of farmers and an EU grant established by Fresh4C, to organise trials for securing freshwater supplies in Belgium, the Netherlands and Felixstowe.

The Environment Agency has been watching this project with interest and is currently monitoring risks of pollution, as well as ensuring that water can be extracted as easily as it is stored in the aquifer. But John Patrick and the team at Felixstowe Hydrocycle are hugely optimistic about the potential of this scheme. 'Projects like this are going to be vital,' says Andrew Williams.

'If we did 20 schemes like this over the next 10 years, we’d look after the water supply for agriculture without any need for expensive and polluting desalination,' says John, 'and we could capture rain to stop major towns from flooding. We started with pipelines and pump houses, but ultimately we’re putting water back into the ground, and it works.'



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