Government announces proposals for water abstraction reform

irrigation sprinkler head

In short...

Defra has set out its proposals for abstraction reform in its statement ‘UK Government response to consultation on reforming the Water Abstraction Management System’.

A separate but parallel announcement has been made by the Welsh Government.

The proposals focus on the management of surface water at the catchment scale and are in response to Defra’s 2014 consultation, ‘Making the most of every drop’.

Defra plans to introduce a new abstraction management system from the early 2020s by replacing current abstraction licences with new permits. Permitted volumes will not be the same as current licensed volumes but will be based on abstractors’ past peak usage ‘over the past 10 years’, and so ‘unused headroom’ will be removed.

The concept of ‘permanent’ and ‘time limited’ licences will disappear. All new permits will be managed more collectively, subject to local catchment rules, and will be subject to periodic review depending on local environmental risks.

Section 57 restrictions that currently apply only to spray irrigation licences will disappear.

Management rules will be devised for each catchment and all permits within the catchment will be subject to an ongoing ‘risk based review’.

The abstraction charging system will also be reviewed. Further information on what the reform proposals mean for individual abstractors can be found here.

The NFU submitted detailed comments to Defra’s consultation and it is reassuring that many of our recommendations have been adopted, particularly those that seek to recognise and cater for the erratic use patterns common in irrigated cropping. However, the challenge facing the agri-food sector lies in ensuring that producers are given a fair allocation of water for food production.

The transition process that will convert existing abstraction licences to new permits will also be challenging for some farmers and growers.

We agree that the current system is not flexible enough to improve the efficient use of water while protecting the environment; neither can the way that water is currently managed ensure the fair treatment of existing and future abstractors.

The NFU therefore seeks a new system that links food security to water security, and allocates a fair share of water to farmers and growers to produces our food. We look forward to future engagement with government and its agencies to help shape the new system, both directly and through our involvement with the Water for Food group and Defra’s Abstraction Reform Advisory Group.

The reform proposals are part of a wider package of measures designed to tackle existing unsustainable abstraction. Other measures designed to redress the water balance in readiness for reform include:

  • The Restoring Sustainable Abstraction (RSA) programme aimed mainly, but not exclusively, at the public supply sector. This will be completed by 2020
  • Licences that have been unused for four years will be revoked by 2021
  • Currently exempt abstractions, such as trickle irrigation, will be brought into the licensing system
  • A programme of local measures will be designed to prevent deterioration and improve the ecological status of water bodies, as required by the EU Water Framework Directive.