DEFRA plans changes to water abstraction rules and the EA’s groundwater powers

Long-awaited abstraction reform, first promised more than a decade ago, is being considered by government as part of a consultation launched this morning, which will also look at changing the Environment Agency’s powers on groundwater.

Overabstraction is drying up rare chalk streams. Photograph: Rachel Salvidge

Government is consulting on “plans to modernise and simplify water abstraction and impounding regulation in England”, DEFRA said in an announcement today. At the same time it is also consulting on new proposals to “enhance the Environment Agency’s powers to protect groundwater resources”, it said. 

DEFRA said its plans would balance the “needs of people and the environment, protecting supplies and improving water quality”.

The plans involve moving the abstraction licensing system, which is mainly paper-based and was set up in the 1960s, under the environmental permitting regulations (EPR) regime. This would “bring the majority of environmental permits under one legal framework and allow people to manage all their permits in one place”, says DEFRA. The move to EPR was supposed to happen this year, but has been delayed. 

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 Modernising abstraction was promised in DEFRA and the EA’s joint 2017 Water Abstraction Plan, which sets out “planned reforms for water abstraction management over the coming years and how these will contribute to the delivery of the goal in the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan for clean and plentiful water”, according to the department. 

However, commitments to improve the oversight of abstraction go much further back. It was promised by the government in its 2011 ‘Water for Life’ white paper, but it was not until December 2017 that the Environment Agency set out its plans to gradually review and revoke damaging, underused and unused licences in a piecemeal fashion.

The groundwater consultation proposes amending regulations to “take a more practical approach to regulating activities that affect groundwater quality, for example returning treated water to the ground following the clean-up of a pollution incident and bringing in new protections for groundwater”.

It proposes increasing the range of permitting controls available to the Environment Agency for activities that affect groundwater, currently permitted only by the highest-tier permits, which DEFRA says “are often disproportionate to the different levels of risk certain activities represent”. DEFRA says a “wider range of permits will remove unnecessary costs for businesses while still ensuring strong protections are in place for our water environment”.

The new permits will also cover activities with the potential to introduce heat pollution or microbial pollution to groundwater, bringing them in line with the controls already in place for surface, bathing and drinking water, according to the department.

The squeeze on England’s water resources has become more apparent of late, with the number of seriously water-stressed areas recently doubling and with Environment Agency heads Sir James Bevan and Emma Howard Boyd issuing regular warnings that supply will outstrip demand in the near future without swift action from water companies. Guided by Ofwat, the water sector is considering a number of major solutions to the coming water shortages. 

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “Our 25-Year Environment Plan laid out our core commitment to ensuring the provision of clean and plentiful water.

“To deliver on that pledge in a changing climate we need to look at how we can better support those who take water from our rivers and aquifers while building on existing protections for these resources and the ecosystems they support.”

The consultations will run until 22 December 2021.