Manage water on land: guidance for land managers

How to manage water use, levels, drainage and irrigation, and avoid pollution from waste water and sheep dip.

Land managers who use and discharge water must follow the legal requirements to avoid causing water pollution.

Water abstraction and irrigation

If you want to abstract more than 20 cubic metres of water per day from a surface source (river, stream or canal) or underground source (groundwater), you need an abstraction licence from the Environment Agency.

If you already have a water abstraction licence and need to change it or transfer some or all of it to someone else, read the guidance on water abstraction.

It’s a condition of cross compliance to hold and comply with a water abstraction licence for irrigation purposes.

You should regularly review your water needs and apply to vary your licence well in advance if your water demand is likely to change. This includes extending the abstraction period following a dry summer.

If you want to take advantage of high river flows in summer to top up a reservoir, you need to check that your licence allows you to do this. If not, you must apply to vary your licence.

To take high flows in summer to fill a reservoir, you may have to install your own calibrated measuring device so that you know when high flows are available. Calculating the stop and start level may take some time and need extra flow measurement, so apply to the Environment Agency as early as possible.

The summer high flow abstraction will be time limited to the catchment abstraction licensing strategy (ALS) common end dates. Contact the Environment Agency about the feasibility and details of varying your licence to take high flows in summer:

In times of water scarcity, the Environment Agency will produce water availability reports (called ‘prospects’) for some parts of England. These provide advance warning of potential seasonal restrictions on water abstraction.

Emergency restrictions on irrigators

In an emergency situation such as a severe drought, the Environment Agency can change your abstraction licence if it authorises spray irrigation. This is known as a ‘section 57 restriction’.

This means they can stop or reduce all abstraction licences for spray irrigation within a water catchment.

If your licence allows you to spray irrigate and use water for another purpose, such as vegetable washing, any restriction would only apply to your spray irrigation abstraction.

The restrictions would not apply to:

  • trickle irrigators
  • irrigation using water collected in winter storage reservoirs
  • water used to supply pot grown plants which are unable to take moisture from the soil
  • irrigation of covered crops (in glasshouses or poly tunnels)

The Environment Agency use surface water or groundwater thresholds in their drought management plans to decide when to consider section 57 restrictions.

As an irrigator you may be eligible for a charge reduction of up to 50% because of the uncertainty of potential restrictions. This reduction is known as a 2 part tariff. If you do not already have a 2 part tariff agreement contact the Environment Agency:

Discharge of waste water

If you discharge treated domestic sewage to surface water or to ground/groundwater, you will need a permit from the Environment Agency unless you can meet certain criteria that enable you to qualify for an exemption. See guidance on exempt water discharge and groundwater activity.

See the guidance on qualifying exemption criteria for septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants.

If you make a discharge of waste water, you may need to apply for an environmental permit. See the guidance to check if you need an environmental permit.

Vegetation management

If you cut or uproot a substantial amount of vegetation in any inland freshwater (or so near that it falls into an inland freshwater) and do not take reasonable steps to remove it from the water, you are carrying out a water discharge activity.

If you meet certain conditions, you may be exempt from the need to have a permit. See the guidance on exempt water discharge and groundwater activity.


You can use aquatic herbicides (professional plant protection products) to control weeds in or near water. There are a number of specific herbicides that are approved for this use.

If you plan to use herbicides to control aquatic or bank side weeds in England, you will need to get an agreement in advance from the Environment Agency.

You must make sure that the herbicides you use will not affect anyone else using the site, or any water body or watercourse downstream of the site. This includes water that is:

  • drunk by livestock
  • used for crop irrigation
  • used by fisheries
  • used as drinking water

You must make sure that the herbicide will not affect any nature conservation areas.

To use a professional plant protection product in or near water, you must have the necessary skills, knowledge and qualifications. You must either have a recognised specified certificate (previously known as a certificate of competence) or be working under the direct supervision, for the purposes of training, of someone who has such a certificate.

You do not need to hold a certificate yourself if you’re working under the direct supervision of someone who has one.

When using herbicides you must:

  • take precautions to protect the health of people, animals, wildlife, plants and the environment
  • take precautions to avoid polluting water
  • follow the instructions on the product label or in the published approval for the pesticide
  • be trained in using herbicides in a safe, efficient and humane way and hold the appropriate certificate
  • follow the code of practice for using plant protection products

Aerial spraying of pesticides and herbicides

You must apply for an aerial application permit if you want to apply pesticides from an aircraft. The Environment Agency can provide map based information so that you can carry out your own site based risk assessments before applying for a permit.

Email using the title ‘aerial herbicide screening’.

When using pesticides, you must follow the codes of practice available from the Chemicals Regulation Division.

Drainage and water levels

If you own land above or with a watercourse running through it, you are a ‘riparian owner’ and have responsibilities. You may also need permission to undertake maintenance work on watercourses.

If you have a designated flood defence on your land, the Environment Agency may need access to carry out periodic maintenance.

Pollution from land management activities

Nutrients, pesticides, faecal bacteria and sediment from land management activities can have serious effects on water used for drinking, bathing, shellfish and other ecology, business and recreational uses. You have a legal responsibility to manage water use and avoid pollution.

You must report pollution incidents to the Environment Agency immediately so that appropriate environmental protection measures can be put in place:

Environment Agency incident hotline: 0800 80 70 60

See the code of practice for using plant protection products to help you avoid causing pollution.

You must take steps to avoid causing pollution particularly when you:

  • rear and manage livestock (for example, soil poaching and access to water)
  • use pesticides or herbicides
  • spray irrigation
  • treat and dispose of waste water
  • dispose of animal treatments and medicines (such as sheep dip)
  • wash down yards or barns
  • store and use manures and slurries
  • store oil or fuel
  • land spread waste and sewage sludge
  • clear vegetation and maintain drainage ditches and waterways
  • plough and manage soil

Waste water and field run-off

It is an offence to pollute surface waters or groundwater with waste water or polluted run-off from fields, including drain flow. This can arise from the spreading of chemicals, slurry/dirty water, waste and sewage sludge; or through the poor management of soils that can release suspended solids and faecal indicator organisms.

You must make sure all slurry, including dirty water, is properly contained in a well-designed and constructed store.

Dirty yards must not drain directly into surface waters or groundwater. You must take action to reduce the risk of causing pollution. You must:

  • modify drains to separate clean and dirty water
  • not allow dirty yard runoff to enter soakaways, blind ditches and watercourses
  • use bunded areas or sealed drainage in any areas used for risky activities, such as refuelling, handling and mixing of pesticides, or washing machinery
  • consider installing a lined biobed or biofilter to safely manage pesticide contaminated runoff from your yard - to treat non-hazardous pesticide washings in a biobed or biofilter you will need to register an exemption with the Environment Agency
  • have a permit from the Environment Agency if you want to dispose of pesticide washings to land

Sheep dip

Sheep dip contains very toxic insecticides. It is important to store, use and dispose of dip, and manage freshly dipped sheep correctly to minimise the risks of polluting water.

If you use sheep dip you should follow the sheep dip code of practice. Specifically you should:

  • have a certificate of competence if you want to buy sheep dip and carry out or supervise dipping
  • only use products authorised by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and follow the manufacturer’s instructions
  • buy only enough sheep dip concentrate to meet your immediate needs
  • store unused sheep dip concentrate in a secure location
  • inspect sheep dip baths and draining areas regularly to make sure sheep dip cannot escape and any drips and splashes run back into the dip bath
  • site your sheep dipping facilities at least 10 metres from a watercourse and more than 50 metres from a well, spring or borehole
  • keep freshly dipped sheep in a holding field until they are dry
  • rinse empty sheep dip containers at least 3 times and crush them so they cannot be used again – see the guidance on Voluntary Initiative website by searching for BPG container cleaning
  • dispose of waste sheep dip legally and as soon as possible after dipping
  • have a permit from the Environment Agency if you want to dispose of waste sheep dip by spreading it on land

If you want to treat waste organophosphate sheep dip with an approved organophosphate degrading enzyme, you will need to register an exemption with the Environment Agency and operate within the conditions set out in the exemption.

Nutrient management

Losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture reduces drinking water quality and causes algae and other plant life to grow too fast (eutrophication). This causes aquatic habitats to deteriorate and extra channel maintenance is needed to manage flood risk.

Storage of silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oil (SSAFO)

You must comply with the storage of silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oil regulations to prevent water pollution.

The regulations cover the design, construction and maintenance of new, substantially reconstructed or substantially enlarged facilities for storing these substances. Storage facilities should be sited at least 10 metres from inland freshwater or coastal water and have a 20 year life expectancy.

You must notify the Environment Agency in writing about plans for any new, substantially enlarged or substantially reconstructed system at least 14 days before any construction begins.

The Environment Agency is likely to request details of the proposed design and construction methods. Once an agreed proposal has been constructed, you need to return the notification form they will send you before you start using the facility.

Penalties for non-compliance

If you do not comply with a permit or exemption, cause or knowingly allow water pollution, the Environment Agency will take enforcement action depending on the individual circumstances of the case.

The Environment Agency may use criminal sanctions or civil sanctions. See the enforcement options available for specific offences in the offence response options.

Cross compliance

If you receive support under the Single Payment Scheme or certain schemes under the Rural Development Programme for England, you must meet the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) standards for soil management and protection.

You must also meet the other cross-compliance standards set out in the guide to cross compliance in England 2015.

There are 3 GAEC standards relating to water management:

  • GAEC 1 – protection of hedgerows and watercourses
  • GAEC 2 – water abstraction
  • GAEC 3 – protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration

You must also ensure that you comply with any relevant licences, permits or exemptions. The Environment Agency must report licence, permit or exemption breaches to the Rural Payments Agency.

Further water management advice

The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) has published advice from its partners.

To save water and money, Irrigation UK provide guides to help you design and manage your irrigation practices.

Published 19 February 2015