‘Severely compromised’: EA unable to guarantee future water supplies without extra funds

The Environment Agency is consulting on a plan to overhaul abstraction charges in order to raise funds and be able to “safeguard water supplies” but its long overdue review of the abstraction licensing system remains kicked into the long grass, while water supplies dwindle and demand increases.

Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire in 2018. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire in 2018. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images

England is heading for a water crisis without swift action, according to a raft of reports. More than 3.4 billion additional litres per day will be needed in England by 2050, 23% more than today’s supplies, according to the agency. “Without action, we risk significant water shortages in parts of the country,” it said. The number of water stressed areas in the country have recently doubled, and the levels of abstraction are increasing, according to Office of National Statistics figures. 

In a bid to avoid these scenarios, an Environment Agency consultation on plans to revise the abstracting charging system was launched today, with the agency saying it has not increased the fees for a decade and that it is not fully recovering costs for the water resources service it needs to provide. “Without the additional money, our ability to deliver these main outcomes will be severely compromised,” it says. 

Such outcomes include meeting the 25-Year Environment Plan’s ambition to deliver clean and plentiful water, meeting the nation’s future water demand, providing satisfactory customer service, and supporting abstractors so they can create a “better environment for people and wildlife”.

The current charging system, referred to as subsistence charge in the ‘Draft of the Environment Agency (Environmental Permitting and Abstraction Licensing) (England) Charging Scheme 2022’) is calculated using the volume authorised, multiplied by a number of factors including source of supply; season; loss of water to the environment; and a regional standard unit charge.

The new proposed charges will be based on: the volume of water taken from the environment; where the water is taken from; and how much of that water is returned to the environment.

As a result, around 45% of abstractors will see their annual charges decrease and 55% will see an increase, says the agency. Overall, three quarters of all abstractors will see either a decrease or an increase of less than £100 in their charges, it adds.

New applicants will also see a higher initial application fee, in line with those charged for other permitting regimes.

The agency says the changes will benefit the environment by “enabling the Environment Agency to invest more in upgrading infrastructure assets to move water around the country, using data to improve local management of water resources and protecting water-stressed catchments such as chalk streams”.

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Many of England’s rivers have been over abstracted for years, but the agency and successive governments have been slow to act to reform the abstraction licensing regime, despite green groups calling for it for decades. 

The Water for Life white paper, which commits to improving the abstraction regime was published, after long delays, in 2011, but abstraction reform was left out of the resulting Water Act, to the dismay of many. 

After further delays, the government announced in its 2017 Water Abstraction Plan that it would transfer the system to sit under the environmental permitting regime by 2020, but this deadline was pushed back and DEFRA says it now expects to consult on these plans in September 2021.

Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan said: “In the face of the climate emergency, population growth and rising demand for water, we need to protect our rivers, aquifers and the environment; and ensure that those who rely on water for their business or public supply can continue to do so into the future.

“The proposed changes to the Environment Agency’s water abstraction licence charges are designed to do that. They will allow the EA to do more to protect our rivers and chalk streams; to manage our water resources better for the public, businesses and the environment; and to sustain supplies into the future, helping us secure long term water resilience.

“I urge anyone with an interest to take part in this consultation on this critical issue for us all.” 

The consultation closes on 10 November.  The new charging scheme will be implemented from 1 April 2022.


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