Articles | DEFRA changes to Water Abstraction exemptions

From the 1st January 2018 you may need to apply for a Water Abstraction licence where such abstraction has previously been exempt.


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Hazel Eccles

Hazel Eccles

A Water Abstraction Licence is usually required when you abstract water from rivers, streams and canals, or from groundwater. This is so that the total amount of water taken from supplies can be monitored and regulated by the relevant regulator.

Applications are made to the relevant regulator, which in England is the Environment Agency, and in Wales is Natural Resources Wales. It is a criminal offence to abstract water from any source of supply without a licence, unless you fall within an exemption.

Previously exempt activities has included abstraction for trickle (drip) irrigation and other forms of horticultural irrigation, such as hydroponics and flood irrigation of cultivated land.

However since the introduction of the Water Abstraction and Impounding (Exemptions) Regulations 2017 in October 2017, most of the water abstraction licensing exemptions in England and Wales have been removed and the process for applications has commenced in respect of previous exempt abstractions.

The exemptions, which ended on 1 January 2018, include:

  • transferring water from one inland water to another in the course of, or as the result of, operations carried out by a navigation, harbour or conservancy authority;
  • abstraction of water into internal drainage districts but not including land drainage activities;
  • dewatering mines, quarries and engineering works, where the water is mostly groundwater rather than rain;
  • warping (abstraction of water containing silt for deposit onto agricultural land so that the silt acts as a fertiliser);
  • all forms of irrigation (other than spray irrigation, which is already licensable), and the use of land drainage systems in reverse (including transfers into managed wetland systems) to maintain field water levels;
  • abstractions within currently geographically exempt areas, including some rivers close to the borders of Scotland; and
  • the majority of abstractions covered by Crown and visiting forces exemptions.

The normal licensing threshold will continue to apply, however, which means that only abstractions of more than 20m³/day in aggregate from a source of supply will need to apply for an abstraction licence.

Therefore, if you abstract less than 20m³/day of water you will still be exempt from the requirement to obtain a licence.

If you abstract water under an exemption which was now been removed, then you will have two years, ending on 31 December 2019, in which to apply for a licence. Throughout this two year period you will be able to continue abstracting water without a licence in place.

If you do need a licence, then there are three types you can apply for from your regulator. The type of licence you need depends on what you want to use the water for, and how long for. As a guide, the types of licence are:

1. Full abstraction licence - these cover most types of abstraction over 20 cubic metres a day;
2. Transfer licence - used for moving water from one source of supply to another with no intervening use;
3. Temporary licence - covering abstractions over 20 cubic metres a day over a period of less than 28 consecutive days.

Once the regulator receives your application it will have three years to it. Importantly, you will be able to continue to abstract water without a licence until your application has been determined (the latest date being 31 December 2022). Where you have not made an application then you will be able to continue abstracting until the application period closes on 31 December 2019.

When enforcing the new regulations each regulator has been advised by the Government to take a “light-touch, risk based” approach. The Government has confirmed that the majority of licences will be granted on the basis of existing abstraction requirements and will only generally be refused in order to protect the environment from serious damage, although there are, of course, exceptions to this recommendation, such as abstractions within SSSI.