Dry feet or deteriorating nature: a difficult balance to find by the water board

Water board De Dommel
Photo credit: Tjeerd Adema/Studio040

Years of drought followed by a week of huge downpours: in times of climate change, good water management is crucial. In De Dommel water board, farmers have the loudest voices. As a result, the standards for clean water and the groundwater level seem to be exceeded.

Traditionally, farmers’ interests have been well represented in the water boards. By now, one might wonder whether that is still tenable. According to the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (central office for statistics), 2.1 per cent of the working population worked in agriculture in 2018. In the water board, an average of 20 per cent is a farmer or representative of the farmer’s interests. This is evident from a database of ancillary positions of water board administrators, compiled by investigative journalists Dieuwertje Kuijpers and Kim van Keken. Waterschap de Dommel has six farmer board members out of 31.
Other factors like a comparison of the percentages of economical value of farmers, natural value and contribution to the food supply between the past and now have not yet been taken into account -Ed.

The over-representation of farmers in the water board can have consequences for the policy, and for citizens. Water quality has come under increasing pressure in recent years. In eight groundwater extraction areas in Noord Brabant, nitrate and phosphate pollution threatened to become too high for the drinking water supply in 2019. Various variants of sphinga (used in non-stick coatings, among other things) were also found in surface water and – in a small number of cases – in groundwater. Add to this medicine residues, drug waste, pesticides, (cleaning) chemicals and the possible contamination of heat pump drilling, higher water usage in general and the goal of cleaner water is quite far away.

The water board is responsible for clean water, sufficient water and dry feet. Especially the latter two often clash. After three very dry summers, heavy rainfall in July caused flooding. An important issue in combating both drought and flooding is the groundwater level. Farmers generally prefer it low, so that the meadows stay dry and machines can move over the land easily. For nature, however, a low groundwater level is a big problem.

Spraying 30 per cent less

Last year, the Deltares research bureau investigated nature’s water requirements on behalf of the Brabantse Milieufederatie (Brabant environmental federation), Brabants Landschap (Brabant scenery), Staatsbosbeheer (state forest management) and Natuurmonumenten (nature monuments). The researchers concluded that in large parts of Brabant, early in the spring (and certainly in the summer), there is too little seepage available. Seepage is groundwater that emerges from the soil when there is less pressure at the surface. Wet heathland, forests, fens and raised bogs dry out due to too little seepage.

Deltares advised to raise the groundwater level by retaining more water. About 80 per cent of the rain is drained away towards the Maas. The remaining 20 per cent sinks into the groundwater, but is then used for drinking and industrial water, as well as for watering meadows and fields. To restore the groundwater level, the annual water pumped up would have to be reduced by 30 per cent.

Compensation for emergency measure

At the Zuidelijke Land- en Tuinbouworganisatie (Southern agricultural and horticultural organisation, ZLTO), however, they already stumbled in February on the adjustment of the so-called 5 per cent rule. This allows farmers to pump up groundwater during exceptional droughts in order to water their grasslands. The 5 per cent refers to the annual probability of extreme drought.

The underlying calculation method for the regulation, according to the spokesperson of De Dommel, dates from the 90s and is no longer appropriate due to climate change. Although the 5 per cent rule was intended as an emergency measure, it was used in 2018, 2019 and 2020. With the adjusted calculation method, it becomes an emergency measure again.

ZLTO felt that ‘grassland farmers once again feel cornered as users of groundwater for low-value purposes’ by this adjustment. The agricultural club was disappointed that no compensation offer had been made to farmers. In the transition to a future-proof water policy, ZLTO believes that an ‘appropriate reward’ for well-intentioned farmers is also appropriate.

Necessary grassland production

De Dommel water board notes in a document on water transition that agriculture in Brabant is highly dependent on irrigation. In dry years, farmers extract more than twice the average of 40 million cubic metres per year. Despite millions of euros invested since 2010 to turn the tide, ‘the groundwater level continues to decline’, says the document.

Executive director and farmer Martijn Tholen, who is responsible for sufficient water at the water board, thinks it is too easy to blame farmers. “If you see a sprinkler reel, it is not a waste of water, but contributes to grassland production and better water quality because the minerals are utilised instead of being washed away”, he told De Nieuwe Oogst, the multimedia platform of the regional agricultural and horticultural organisations, last year.

“People who only talk about irrigation policy in light of the increasing drought don’t understand it at all. In the area of De Dommel the total extraction of groundwater for irrigation is only a fraction of everything we drain away. (If we can retain at least 10 per cent more water, that is already more than is being extracted for irrigation). Population growth and larger water usage per person also should be taken into account.

Tholen’s point of view fits in with that of ZLTO. In a reaction to the new water management plan of De Dommel, which will take effect next year, the branch organisation opposed a higher groundwater level. According to the branch organisation, the current water spraying policy is ‘outdated and inflexible […] and offers no room for reward or any concrete action perspective for the farmer’.

Groundwater level drops by a metre

On paper, retaining more water does indeed have a greater effect than watering less. According to Deltares, approximately 1500 million cubic metres of rainwater flows out of the province of Noord Brabant every year via the surface water. If you can retain an extra 150 million cubic metres of water per year (10 per cent of the rainfall), this more than compensates for the farmers’ water needs. This is true even for a dry year like 2018, when they used over 100 million cubic metres of water. Investments in water reduction and retention methods are recommended.

However, it is unclear whether water retention measures have an effect on the groundwater level. The water management plan states that this may eventually reduce the demand for groundwater. But ‘we do not know in advance whether […] a sufficient buffer in the groundwater reserves will be created and the water system will recover’.

A more effective solution therefore seems to be to limit the use of groundwater. According to Deltares, an average of 290 million cubic metres is needed annually for drinking water, industry and sprinkler systems, while only 260 million cubic metres replenishes the groundwater. In normal years, there is therefore already a shortage of 30 million cubic metres per year.

In dry years, even more than 330 million cubic metres of groundwater are pumped up. And that does not even include nature’s water requirements. During the water board meeting of 12 December 2019, Ineke Barten, aquatic ecologist at De Dommel, explained that the groundwater level on the high dry sandy soils in the Kempen has dropped by a metre since 1960.

Non-committal target level

Nevertheless, the water board has not (yet) set any concrete targets for limiting groundwater use. There will be target levels for the surface water, ‘so that partners can make informed choices and take their own responsibility’. The level of the surface water will usually go hand in hand with the level of the groundwater. Only after 2027 can the ‘non-binding character’ be converted into hard target levels.

The Brabantse Milieu Federatie, Brabants Landschap and Natuurmonumenten find this an unacceptable delay. More and more water is being used for irrigation, which has consequences for the protection level of nature reserves. The water board points out that this increase applies to the whole of Brabant, not just to De Dommel area.

The water board does not want to commit to drought control either. “Drought is a natural phenomenon and depends on the precipitation that falls”, it says in a response to the nature organisations’ criticism of the water management plan. “The water board cannot be held to that through a standard”. Instead, in the coming years it will investigate the possibilities of further regulating groundwater extractions.

Apart from more and more water spraying, not everyone is spraying according to the rules. In 2020, the De Dommel enforcement team issued five fines for watering outside the permitted times and seven fines for pumping groundwater without a permit. Administrative action was taken once for sealing an illegal well. In 2019, the enforcers acted fourteen times against unauthorised spraying, although the number of inspections were twice as low as previously planned.


For the implementation of water retention measures, the water board is strongly dependent on the landowners. It manages almost 2,000 kilometres of larger watercourses itself, while farmers, private individuals and nature organisations have about 28,000 kilometres under their care. “De Dommel area is a mosaic landscape”, the water board spokesperson says. “After every nature area you have agriculture and vice versa. All the space is in use and all the land belongs to someone. That sometimes creates difficult dilemmas”.

When there is flooding, relations between farmers and the water board immediately come under pressure. After the heavy rainfall in July, ZLTO claimed in Eindhovens Dagblad that the water management of De Dommel was not in order. Mowing was said not to have been done on time and not to have been done enough, resulting in considerable damage to crops. According to the water board this was not so bad. The mowing policy had been adjusted as a measure against dehydration.

In 2016, the branche organisation was also very critical after heavy rainfall. In the aftermath, ZLTO board member Gerard Nabuurs pleaded with the water board for better drainage of water, instead of retaining it. Of the 323 damage claims for De Dommel, 41 were eventually honoured. In those cases, the water board had played a partial role in the flooding. Having more flexibility in retaining or draining water is something the water board has to look in to.

Water Directive

In the meantime, compliance with nature legislation is not yet as smooth as it should be. At the end of last year, ‘Watergraaf’ (water warden) Erik de Ridder signed the declaration of intent ‘green blue province’. In it, the province and other water boards in North Brabant decided to work together to make every effort to comply with the water framework directive (KRW). The current (national) approach has so far proved inadequate.

The KRW (water framework directive) must protect ecosystems and water resources in Europe with quality criteria for ground and surface water. There are criteria for polluting substances in the water, the amount of groundwater and living conditions for plants and animals in and around the water. If member states do not have the water quality and groundwater level in order by 2027, the European Commission can impose fines.

The KRW mainly applies to the somewhat larger water bodies; in De Dommel water board, it concerns a third of the total. For the remaining ditches, brooks and fens, the province and the water board jointly set goals that are an obligation to perform to the best of their abilities. According to the water management plan of De Dommel, ‘in any case, no deterioration may occur’.

Poor water quality

It is therefore not surprising that the water quality is barely improving. Last month Stichting Natuur & Milieu (nature & environment foundation) announced the results of the national citizen survey ‘Vang de Watermonsters’ (‘catch the watermonsters’). For three years in a row, a network of over a thousand citizen researchers took water samples from ditches, lakes, fens and ponds in their neighbourhood. This year, only 17 per cent of the waters sampled were of good quality. At Waterboard De Dommel, 16 of the 24 waters surveyed scored poor or moderate.

The results of the Waterblitz survey, carried out in September, were slightly more positive. Research institute Earthwatch Europe and water board De Dommel also made use of citizen researchers. Of the 118 samples taken in and around Eindhoven (i.e. not in the outlying areas), 60 were of poor or moderate quality.

Last year, De Dommel and Aa en Maas water boards’ own research showed that there was too much nitrogen and phosphate in the surface water in some areas of East Brabant. This may indicate that the water contains too high concentrations of fertilisers. And that, in turn, could indicate that manure spreading is being cheated.

In 2017, research by NRC Handelsblad showed that almost two-thirds of the manure transporters and processors in East Brabant and North Limburg had been convicted, fined or suspected of fraud with animal manure. According to the newspaper, a lot of manure is spread illegally on meadows and fields, while farmers, transporters and processors pretend to get rid of the manure. This pollutes the ground and surface water.

Criticism of nitrogen approach

The RIVM (national institute for public health)concluded late last year that since 2017 more nitrate has been leaching from farms into ditches. This is due to increased nitrogen use and the influence of dry summers. In recent years, according to the researchers, the improvement in water quality has been much slower than in the past. “The current policy is insufficient to achieve the objectives. The issue becomes even more acute if we take into account the more frequent occurrence of periods of drought, as has been the case in recent years.”

It is all the more striking that Executive Director Tholen, responsible for sufficient water and co-responsible for clean water, sharply criticised the nitrogen policy in early 2020. In an opinion article in the Brabants Dagblad he, together with CDA (Christian Democrats) members and fellow water board members Maarten van den Tillaart and Els Stravens, criticised the ‘one-sided view of nature’. According to the authors, nitrogen can lead to less arid and woody nature but ‘that is apparently not allowed’. They questioned the calculation methods for nitrogen precipitation and criticised the unrealistic nature of measures to reduce nitrogen emissions.

In the water board meeting, a discussion then ensued as to whether Tholen should have been allowed to speak so sharply on its own behalf. Several board members did not think this was a problem, because there should be room for differing opinions. The executive board prefers that pronounced (policy) views are made known in advance.

It raises the question of the extent to which Tholen’s point of view is broadly supported. During the consultation round for the draft water management plan, the province asked whether the water board would take account of the accelerated approach to nitrogen. The water board considered nitrogen a joint issue, although it did not want to take over responsibility for the ultimate nitrogen reduction.

Dual mandate

Farmers’ interests are overrepresented on the water board. That is because of the secured seats and because of the presence of farmers from CDA and VVD (people’s party for freedom and democracy) in the elected seats. Research journalists Kuijpers and Van Keken call this a double mandate. In the De Dommel water board, VVD and CDA together hold eight of the 31 seats. Three of the elected administrators are farmers and on top of that there are three guaranteed seats for agriculture.

The Boelhouwer Committee, which last year advised former Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment Cora van Nieuwenhuizen to abolish the guaranteed seats, came to similar conclusions. Of the elected water board members, 14 per cent were active in agriculture or had an affinity with it. Of the administrators in local parties, almost 60 per cent were active in agriculture, followed by the CDA (29 per cent) and the VVD (24 per cent). Together, they represent the interests of agriculture with 22 percent of the seats. This dual mandate is much more difficult to establish for the other secured categories Companies and Natural Areas.

On top of that there is the influence of interest groups. ZLTO has direct lines with several water board administrators at De Dommel and regularly uses the right to speak at the board meeting. The various local departments that are active in De Dommel area also make themselves heard regularly. Although ZLTO represents less than half of the farmers, it is able to put a big stamp on policy.

Technocratic and political

At the same time, there are major and structural problems with the groundwater level and water quality, which various agencies have been pointing out for years. In the new water management plan, the water board has not committed itself to a solution with hard figures. On the other hand, three directors, including a day-to-day manager, have spoken out sharply against national and provincial nitrogen policy.

On the initiative of the secured seats for Companies, the wording of the groundwater covenant has also been watered down. The agreement that groundwater additions and withdrawals should be ‘at least equal’ every two years has been changed to the principle that they should be ‘in principle’ equal. This sounds futile, but can create a lot of room for a non-committal interpretation.

The position of the members of the General Board in the substantive discussion of water policy is less clear. During the meetings of the General Board, the main issues discussed are procedures and costs. There are discussions about the integrity of the board members, communication with the outside world, administrative renewal, cooperation with other levels of government and whether or not the water board tax should be waived for minimum incomes.

The actual water management is in the hands of the executive board, in which members have a guaranteed seat. Although the executive board is traditionally known as technocratic and apolitical, this cannot be maintained in practice. Especially in a technocratic matter such as the KRW, the water directive that the Netherlands must comply with from Brussels, implementation is far behind schedule.

Sharp choices needed

The (secured) interests of farmers, businesses, citizens and nature do clash, and increasingly so now that sharp choices are needed to make water management future-proof. The combination of secured and regular seats is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The Boelhouwer Committee recommended that the secured seats be abolished. Apart from the bill introduced by Laura Bromet (GroenLinks, Green Left Party) and Tjeerd de Groot (D66, Democrats) last summer, nothing has been done about it.

How politicised the subject is, is clear from the aftermath of the advisory report. Instead of entering into discussion with the House of Representatives, former Minister Van Nieuwenhuizen asked the Overlegorgaan Fysieke Leefomgeving (physical environment consultation body) for a new recommendation. At the beginning of this year, it was emphasised that abolishing the secured seats is not feasible before the next water board elections in 2023.

For the time being, it looks like everything will stay the same. Lobby groups LTO (agriculture) and VNO-NCW (businesses) have so far successfully delayed the decision-making on the secured seats. The timely achievement of the goals of the Water Directive could thus be in danger of being compromised.

This story was made possible by the Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek. Dtv, Omroep Venlo, Studio040 and WOS Media work together on local investigative journalism.

Source: Studio040

Translated by: Bob
Edited by: Eindhoven News


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