The legislative framework for water abstraction licensing is being changed

The legislative framework for water abstraction licensing is being changed.

Four new pieces of legislation have been published amending the Water Resources Act 1991, to end historical exemptions from water abstraction licensing control in England and Wales.

The new legislation includes:

  • The Water Abstraction (Transitional Provision) Regulations 2017
  • The Water Abstraction and Impounding (Exemptions) Regulations 2017
  • The Water Abstraction (Revocations etc.) (England) Order 2017
  • The Water Abstraction (Specific Enactments) Regulations 2017


The removal of historical exemptions will mean that anyone taking significant amounts of water from ground or surface waters without a licence will be required to apply for one.

Following a consultation, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) decided to end the following exemptions:

  • Dewatering mines, quarries and engineering works where the water is mostly groundwater rather than rain;
  • Abstraction of water into internal drainage districts, excluding land drainage activities.;
  • Warping (abstraction of water containing silt for depositing onto farmland as a fertiliser);
  • All forms of irrigation (other than spray irrigation which is already licensed) 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;
  • The majority of abstractions covered by Crown and visiting forces exemptions; and
  • Water transfers from one inland water to another by a navigation, harbour or conservancy authority.


Once the exemptions end, the normal threshold will apply, meaning that only those abstracting more than 20m³/day in aggregate from a source of supply will need to apply for an abstraction licence.

DEFRA has also created new exemptions for some low risk abstractions:

  • Some abstractions in connection with dredging operations;
  • Abstraction of water with a high saline content from underground strata in the Cheshire basin;
  • Abstraction (transfers) downstream of the normal tidal limit by navigation, harbour and conservancy authorities;
  • Abstraction of water within managed wetland systems for management purposes;
  • Impounding works constructed by or on behalf of Internal Drainage Boards;
  • Dewatering of underground strata and abstractions of surface waters to prevent interference with construction works (where the abstraction lasts less than six consecutive months);
  • Third-party operated dry docks that transfer water to and from a navigation authority’s water system;
  • Impounding works when required in an emergency; and
  • Emergency abstraction or impounding undertaken by ports, harbours or conservancy authorities.


Changes to the exemptions will then come into force on 1 January 2018 at which point a two-year new licence application period will open.

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