Water Minister Dan Rogerson introducing the consultation on reforming the water abstraction management system:
The impacts of abstracting water directly from rivers or aquifers can be wide-ranging. It can affect the environment, including important nature conservation sites, and public access to rivers for leisure purposes. Water is vital to the economy, for example, to generate power, run industries and grow food. Access to clean, safe and secure water supplies is fundamental to society. This is why water abstraction is a licensed activity, regulated by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales.
We already face challenges in water availability. Many catchments have no spare water that can be allocated for further abstraction due to a need to protect the environment. Managing our available water resources is likely to become more of a challenge in the future with an increasingly varied climate and increased demand for water from a growing population.
The current system for managing abstraction of water from rivers and aquifers was introduced in the 1960s. Most abstractors were given a licence to take a fixed volume of water, regardless of availability. The current system does not help abstractors to trade water effectively, nor does it provide an incentive for abstractors to manage water efficiently. Much of the water that is licensed is not actually used, but the regulator cannot make it available to others who may need it. The current process to change most licences that are causing damage to the environment is expensive and time consuming.
We want to reform the abstraction management system to ensure that we are making the most of every drop. We must use water in the most efficient way possible and support businesses to manage their risks from future pressures on water resources, whilst protecting the environment. This will help to support economic growth and investment in the future.
Tackling unsustainable abstraction
This consultation concerns the long-term reform of the abstraction management system. However, in advance of reform we must continue to tackle the problem of abstractions that are causing damage now to our rivers and groundwater.
We have intensified our work to restore sustainable abstraction to our rivers today by varying and removing abstraction licences. The Environment Agency has already changed 77 licences in England since 2008, which is currently returning around 75 billion litres of water per year to the environment. Similarly in Wales, 44 abstraction licences have already been changed.
The Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales are continuing to address unsustainable abstraction, including considering where abstractions should be classed as causing serious damage. Using powers in the Water Act 2003, certain licences can be changed without compensation payments to prevent serious damage to the environment.
We have included a measure in the Water Bill currently before Parliament to change the way in which water companies are compensated when the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales change their licences to make their abstractions more sustainable. This change will help us address unsustainable abstraction more effectively at the same time as delivering better value for customers.
Why We Are Consulting
The UK Government committed to reform of the water abstraction management system in England in the Natural Environment White Paper, published in June 2011, and then set out the proposed direction, principles and process for reform in the Water White Paper, Water for Life, in December 2011. We are committed to introducing a reformed water abstraction management system able to promote resilient economic growth while protecting the environment.
The Welsh Government is committed to ensuring the sustainable management of water resources in Wales. This includes considering the need for any changes to the water abstraction management system in Wales. The Welsh Government will set out its detailed policy in relation to future water management in Wales in its Water Strategy.
What Happens Next
We will summarise all responses and place this summary on our website at www.gov.uk/defra and the Welsh Government website at Water@Wales.gsi.gov.uk.
This summary will include a list of names of organisations that responded but not personal names, addresses or other contact details.
If you would like to be kept up to date on the development of our proposals and further opportunities to be involved, then please register your interest by emailing
If you have any specific questions in relation to the development of proposals and future opportunities in Wales then please email: