Environmental management – guidance

Water management: abstract or impound water

If you abstract or impound water or plan to do so, you may need to apply for an abstraction or impoundment licence.

Local water availability

The Environment Agency manages over 20,000 abstraction and impoundment licences across England to balance water availability and water demand.

Applications to abstract (take) water are assessed against local water availability. The approach is set out in Abstraction Licensing Strategies (ALS).

To see how much water is available in your river catchment area and understand the likelihood of your application being successful, view your local ALS.

Water abstraction

Taking water from a surface source (such as a river, stream or canal) or from an underground source is called abstraction. If you plan to take more than 20 cubic metres a day, you will almost certainly need an abstraction licence from the Environment Agency.

Before you apply for a water abstraction licence

Before you apply for a new water abstraction licence or to change an existing licence you should:

  • check the ALS for your area – this may indicate the likelihood of your application succeeding
  • complete the water abstraction or impoundment preliminary enquiry form to get pre-application advice from the Environment Agency

Abstractions that don’t need a licence

You don’t need a licence or need to register an exemption for:

  • abstractions of 20 cubic metres or less a day, provided your abstraction is part of a single operation; if you abstract from the same source at multiple points, the exemption only applies if the combined total of all abstractions is 20 cubic metres or less a day
  • some land drainage operations (for example, flood protection)
  • filling ships or boats with drinking or ballast water
  • water used for fire fighting
  • abstractions in relation to dewatering quarries, mines and other building or engineering operations
  • trickle irrigation (some trickle irrigation projects are considered ‘relevant projects’ for the purposes of the Water Resources (Environmental Impact Assessment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2003 (as amended) and therefore require Environment Agency consent

If you are unsure or believe your activity is a ‘relevant project’, contact the Environment Agency.

Types of abstraction licence

The different types of abstraction licence are:

  • full licence – for most types of abstraction over 20 cubic metres a day
  • transfer licence – for moving over 20 cubic metres of water a day from one source of supply to another without intervening use
  • temporary licence – for abstractions over 20 cubic metres a day over a period of less than 28 days

Duration of licences

Abstraction licences may have a time limit linked to a common end date. You can find this in the ALS for the area you are in.

When the Environment Agency grants a licence for the first time, it is likely to be for between 6 and 18 years. When they renew a licence it will normally be for another 12 years.

They may also grant short duration licences where they think there may be issues with the licence or water availability in the longer term, or if you only need it for a short time.

In certain circumstances, they will consider granting licences for up to 24 years.

Long duration licence

If you need to abstract water for a period of up to 24 years, when you apply you will have to demonstrate (through a business case) that:

  • the lifetime of the infrastructure (for example, pumps, pipe work, reservoirs) inseparably associated with the licence will extend over the desired duration of the licence
  • you continuously need the service or product the infrastructure supplies throughout the duration of the licence
  • you have assessed the likely environmental and economic changes that may affect the abstraction over the duration of the licence and the assessment shows no significant concerns (if an environmental impact assessment is required under planning law, this may suffice – alternatively you will need to provide an environmental assessment)
  • the infrastructure contributes to sustainable development

Licence renewal

If your current abstraction licence is due to expire, and you want to continue to abstract, you need to apply for a new licence at least 3 months before the existing licence expires.

Trading water rights

An abstraction licence gives its holder a right to abstract water. If you are unable to get your own abstraction licence, you may be able to enter into an agreement with an existing licence holder for them to give you part or all of their abstraction right permanently or temporarily. This is called the trading of water rights.

If you already have an abstraction licence, you can agree to give the rights to some or all of that water to someone else. The trading of water rights will usually require the parties involved to apply to the Environment Agency for a new licence and to change or cancel (revoke) any existing licence.

The Environment Agency will:

  • make information available about abstractions, water availability and its approach to licensing
  • advise before an application about whether proposed trading is likely to be licensed

The Environment Agency is unable to act as a broker or negotiate the trading of licences.

Find a trading partner

You need to make your own arrangements to find someone to trade with. High level details of abstraction licences are available in ‘what’s in your backyard’. You can contact the Environment Agency to find out where you can view more licence details in the water resources public register, for free.

Types of trade

There are 4 different trading scenarios. These are:

  • whole, permanent – the whole of the trader’s abstraction right is transferred to the recipient on a permanent basis
  • whole, temporary – the whole of the trader’s abstraction right is transferred to the recipient on a temporary basis
  • part, permanent – part of the trader’s abstraction right is transferred to the recipient on a permanent basis
  • part, temporary – part of the trader’s abstraction right is transferred to the recipient on a temporary basis

Further guidance on trading water rights is available.


An impoundment is a structure within inland waters that can permanently or temporarily change the water level or flow. This includes:

  • dams
  • weirs
  • fish passes
  • hydropower turbines
  • sluices
  • penstocks
  • culverts
  • lock gates
  • retaining walls
  • flumes
  • reservoir embankments
  • temporary diversions during construction work

You must have an impoundment licence before you start to work on an impoundment structure, even in an emergency, unless one of the exemptions below applies.

Impoundments that don’t need a licence

There are several exemptions where an impoundment licence is not needed. These are:

  • works constructed without a licence before 1 April 2006, except where a notice is served by the Environment Agency requiring application for a licence
  • where a public authority that manages or owns waterways or harbours constructs any new impoundment, alters an existing impoundment or obstructs or impedes the flow of inland waters while exercising its powers or undertaking its duties
  • where the impoundment is authorised by a drought order or drought permit
  • where the persons doing the works are Crown exempt
  • where structures and works are authorised by legislation (for example an act of Parliament)
  • where the Environment Agency serves notice requiring impoundment only for the purpose of screening or passage for eels

Low risk impoundment activities

Some impoundment activities have little impact on the environment and other water users. The Environment Agency will not normally require a licence application for:

  • fish easements or passes that have formal written approval by the Environment Agency and do not significantly affect the distribution of flow over the weir
  • placing a notch in a weir to encourage fish migration
  • placing woody debris across part of the channel to diversify flows
  • flap valves that only operate during flooding
  • fixed control or passive flood prevention structures within the channel that only hold back flood water (structures with movable gates or sluices require an impoundment licence)
  • small measurement structures, such as v-notch or small rectangular weirs

The Environment Agency will not normally require a licence application for:

  • refurbishing a sluice
  • re-pointing (block work structures)
  • repairs (for example to expansion joint, stone pitching or bank/wall)
  • void filling (‘solid’ structures)
  • managing vegetation
  • de-silting
  • re-positioning (rock, rubble or block work bank protection structures)
  • replacing elements that do not contribute to phased replacement of the whole structure
  • re-facing
  • skimming/covering
  • blockage removal, including screen clearing
  • embankment grouting

Other activities that will not normally require a licence are:

  • works that temporarily divert water during construction or maintenance of a structure and do not affect any other water users, rights or the environment
  • impounding works or changes to the impoundment to reduce or avoid an immediate threat to human life, property or the environment during an emergency
  • any activity outside the channel, for example on top of the river banks, such as installing or maintaining bridge supports or flood defences
  • work in the river, parallel and adjacent to the bank that doesn’t significantly narrow the channel, for example installing sheet piling, rip rap and rock revetments for erosion protection
  • installing a wave wall on an existing reservoir dam that is not intended to impound any extra water
  • increasing the height of spillway sidewalls (that does not alter the impounding level)
  • altering, moving or constructing a spillway without increasing the impounded level or changing the downstream flow regime to the detriment of the environment

Low risk impoundment checklist

You should keep a record of your checklist for your own records. It is also evidence in a proper assessment that you don’t need to have a licence.

If the answer to all of the following questions is ‘no’ then you are unlikely to require a licence:

  • do surveys reveal any existing abstractions, including unlicensed ones, which may be affected by the proposal
  • are there any other water users or riparian rights or interests that may be affected
  • will the changes cause parts of the weir to suffer significantly reduced flows
  • is the proposal within, or likely to have an impact on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation, Special Protected Area or Ramsar site
  • are planned changes in river flow likely to cause significant change to invertebrate habitats
  • does the proposal affect protected species (not fish) that may live at the site or elsewhere in the catchment
  • are planned changes in the river flow likely to cause a significant change in the macrophyte and diatom communities
  • will the proposal impact on either the up or downstream passage of fish (including eels) in the river
  • will the proposal impact on any fish spawning or nursery areas
  • will the proposal cause sediment movement or deposition to be substantially altered above or below the site
  • will pollutants be discharged or mobilised into the river during construction and/or operation
  • is the proposal likely to significantly increase river turbidity or significantly alter movement of sediment
  • does the scheme involve construction of a new raised reservoir with the capacity of 25,000 cubic metres or more
  • will the proposal cause erosion of the river banks up or down stream

If you are in any doubt about whether you need an impoundment licence, contact the Environment Agency for more information:

Before you apply for an impoundment licence

Before you apply for a new licence or change an existing licence you should:

  • check the ALS for your area – this may indicate the likelihood of your application succeeding
  • complete the water impoundment preliminary enquiry form to get pre-application advice from the Environment Agency

Impoundment licences do not have a time limit. 

Apply for a water abstraction or impoundment licence