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Protecting our water sources: the future of abstraction reform

Defra and the Environment Agency’s responsibilities include the management of water resources. Among these responsibilities is the regulation of water abstraction. Water abstraction is the process of removing water from natural sources like rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Water abstraction is regulated through a system of licences. These are issued to anybody that wishes to abstract (remove) water from water-bodies (sources of water).

The abstraction regulations for rivers and groundwater that we have now aren’t flexible enough to cope with future challenges. Changing weather means some areas will have less water. Others will see increased demand as the population grows.

We need to reform the way we regulate abstraction. The system needs to be more adaptable and allow more effective sharing of water resources.

Defra set out its plans for long-term reform of the abstraction system in the Water White Paper. These plans are supported by the Environment Agency’s ‘Case for change’ which sets out the evidence for the reform.

We consulted on the abstraction reform proposals from December 2013 to March 2014 and published a summary of responses in July 2014. We will take account of the responses and continue to work closely with stakeholders as we develop the proposals further.

We aim to be ready early in the next Parliament to legislate for abstraction reform.

As well as developing these proposals for reform, we’re continuing our efforts to reduce water abstractions that could damage the environment.

You can find out more from our latest newsletter. You can contact us at

Other ways we’re protecting our water sources

The Environment Agency’s Restoring Sustainable Abstraction Programme is used to review and investigate those sites in England and Wales where the habitat or ecology dependent on the water is at risk as a result of unsustainable abstraction.

The Environment Agency also has catchment abstraction management strategies. These strategies are designed to help look after water resources. They include an assessment of how much water is available for abstraction in a particular catchment. A catchment is an area of land where surface water and rain run down to a single point, usually a river or other water-body.

We also use River Basin Management Plans to protect and improve the water environment. They set out the main issues for a particular region, as well as the measures we’ll take to protect it.

In the longer term, Defra and the Welsh Government are working with the Environment Agency and Ofwat on a project to reform the water abstraction licensing system.