Abstraction licences

Abstraction licences are issued by the Environment Agency under the provisions of the Water Resources Acts 1963 and 1991 and provide authorisation for the impoundment and/or abstraction of water from inland waters. Abstractions of less than 5 cubic metres do not require a licence and those less than 20 cubic metres require approval but not a formal licence. All abstractions greater than 20 cubic metres require a licence, with the exception of the removal of water for land drainage, mining, quarrying and related activities and for such uses as fire fighting.

The process for issuing a licence begins with an application from the abstractor (with the assistance of the Environment Agency) who should provide the correct information to enable the decision to be made within the agreed timescale. The application is advertised locally and in the London Gazette to enable representations to be made by interested parties. Statutory consultation is also carried out with Internal Drainage Boards, Navigation, Harbour and Conservancy authorities, and with English Nature/CCW where an SSSI or a European site is likely to be affected. Once respresentations have been received, the application is circulated within the Environment Agency for consideration of implications for fisheries, flood defence and water quality.

The key consideration in considering an application for water abstraction is the flow or level in the water body providing the supply. The Environment Agency has a duty to ensure that interests downstream of the abstraction will not be compromised. The Agency has the power to set conditions on the licence to ensure that the abstraction does not compromise such interests. A common condition on a licence is one that sets a prescribed flow or level in the water body below which abstraction is not permitted. This can be associated with a "hands off" condition which means that an appropriate structure of weirs or sluices has been put in place that automatically ensures that water is not abstracted when the flow or level falls below the prescribed level. The "hands off" condition is preferred because it is more reliable than a system involving human intervention to prevent abstraction. The legislation refers to minimum acceptable flows in water bodies but these have not been determined in practice and so are not used when considering abstraction applications.

Abstraction licences remain in force until revoked by the applicant or the Environment Agency. However, the Government is consulting on new legislation that would allow abstraction licences to be reviewed on a more regular basis.

The requirements for abstraction licences from estuaries and coastal waters are more complicated than for surface freshwaters. Abstractions from estuaries and coastal waters where the intake is below mean low water do not usually require abstraction licences. There are no limits on the amount of water that can abstracted. However, if the abstractor constructs an impoundment to collect water on high tides and then abstracts from the impoundment, a licence to abstract from the impoundment will be required. This is to protect any features that might exist within the impoundment. Abstractions from above mean low water in estuaries do require licences but no charge is made for the water and few limits on the amount of water abstracted will be applied.

The Environment Agency's abstraction licensing manual details the guidance and technical procedures used when considering licences to abstract.