Water abstraction during prolonged dry weather and drought

Guidance for non-water company abstraction licence holders affected by prolonged dry weather and drought.

Applies to England

Current situation and forward look

See the Environment Agency’s water situation reports for more information about the current situation in England.

See the Met Office 3-month outlook for an indication of possible temperature and rainfall conditions over the next 3 months.

Effects of prolonged dry weather and drought

Prolonged dry weather and drought can affect:

  • the ability to irrigate and lift crops – see the irrigation prospects
  • the quality and quantity of crops farmers and growers can produce
  • the ability of licence holders to keep within their abstraction licence limits
  • the reliability of normal water sources
  • animal health and welfare – see the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board guidance on water supply problems for livestock farms
  • private water supplies
  • managed wetlands and other environmental features

How abstraction licence holders can get help

If you do not think you’ll be able to keep to the conditions of your abstraction licence, please contact the Environment Agency. They will talk to you about short-term options for improving your access to water outside the conditions of your licence.

Normally, the Environment Agency expects you to apply to vary (change) your licence to reflect any short-term options that they permit. This means you will not need to request similar options again in the future. They are unlikely to approve repeat requests if you have not varied your licence.

Some examples of options they may consider are:

  • extending your abstraction season
  • allowing you to refill your storage reservoirs at higher flows after the winter abstraction season has ended (normally 31 March each year) – you will need to tell them why you have not been able to refill your reservoir during your authorised winter abstraction period
  • trading water rights – you will need to find someone to trade with (the volume of water available to trade may be less than you have on your licence)
  • aggregating (joining) licences together to give more flexibility over where water can be used
  • adding or moving abstraction points
  • increasing the quantities on your licence to meet additional demand (where water is available)
  • potentially using water and sewage company treated wastewater in certain circumstances – contact the Environment Agency for more details

The Environment Agency can only consider short-term options that follow their abstraction licensing strategies. The options must not damage the environment or affect the rights of existing lawful water users.

Please apply to change (vary) your abstraction licence – this will help you become more resilient to prolonged dry weather and drought in the longer term.

The Environment Agency currently has a large backlog of abstraction licence applications, so please apply as early as possible.

Plan for the future

Climate change may increase the frequency of prolonged dry weather and drought.

You should plan how you will improve the resilience of your water supplies. For example, consider if you can:

  • use the water you abstract more efficiently
  • harvest rainwater
  • change your cropping plans or build a storage reservoir to fill in the winter
  • buy water from other abstraction licence holders – this is called trading water rights

See more information on water use for farmers, growers and land managers in Protecting our water, soil and air.

Check your abstraction licence

Check your licence before you contact the Environment Agency to make sure:

You can manage your water abstraction licence and submit abstraction returns online.

Contact the Environment Agency

Please get in touch to discuss what options might be available.

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
S60 1BY


Telephone 03708 506 506

Telephone from outside the UK (Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm GMT) +44 (0) 114 282 5312

Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm.

Published 13 June 2019
Last updated 7 March 2023 + show all updates
  1. Updated the 'How abstraction licence holders can get help' section to confirm position on refilling winter storage reservoirs beyond the end of the winter abstraction season (31 March each year)

  2. Updated the 'How abstraction licence holders can get help' section with information asking people to contact us to discuss short-term options that could help improve their access to water.

  3. Updated to explain how abstraction licence holders can improve their access to water by reviewing their water needs and applying to vary their abstraction licences.

  4. We have updated our position on refilling winter storage reservoirs for spray irrigation in the winter abstraction season based on the current water situation.

  5. Updated to explain how water abstraction licence holders affected by prolonged dry weather can get help.

  6. We have updated this guidance to allow potential early refill of winter storage reservoirs if 'hands off flow' and environmental conditions allow. We have also published more information to help abstractors complete their abstraction returns.

  7. First published.