Water abstraction

09 May 2018

The protection of vital water supplies has led to the recent reform of a Defra plan – of which the agricultural sector should take note.

The organisation’s Water Abstraction Plan 2017 was seen for the first time last December and will impact on the industry – especially if you hold a licence to abstract or make use of boreholes.

There are two main reasons for this reform – environmental issues being one and unsuitable abstraction being the other.

Defra says the plans will reduce damaging abstraction from rivers and groundwater while improving access to water where it is needed most. It hopes that a roll-out of its new policies will take place between now and 2027, with the Environment Agency using its powers to amend existing licenses.

So, what are the main points?

  • All permanent licences which are shown to be seriously environmentally damaging will be adjusted by March 2020.
  • By 2021, there are plans to review more than half of time-limited licences, and these licences will, where necessary, be adjusted to prevent future environmental damage.
  • There are around 600 unused licences deemed ‘no longer needed’. There are plans to revoke these.
  • Part of the modernisation is to bring an end to significant exemptions. This includes all forms of irrigation not currently licensed, including remaining abstractions which are deemed significant, but have historically been exempt.
  • Currently, abstracting water from a borehole does not require a licence if the capacity abstracted is under the legal limit of 20 cubic metres per 24 hours. By the same legislation which allows unlicensed abstraction, the Secretary of State has the power to vary that threshold and what is unclear, is whether smaller volume abstractors, particularly those using boreholes, will fall under the ambit of these reforms.

For now, it is worth noting that the reforms are in the pipeline and an initial review of unused licences is likely. So, if you are currently on a borehole, be prepared for possible changes.


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