The Abstraction Regime

A better balance

The original system for managing abstraction from rivers and aquifers was conceived in the 1960s, and is fairly simple. Abstractors are generally given licences allowing them to take a fixed volume of water from rivers or aquifers.  However in some regions (‘catchments’), there is not enough water left behind to support the natural environment once abstractors have removed ‘their’ water at times of drought or water scarcity.

This system will not deliver the more challenging environmental objectives set by the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which was adopted by the UK in the year 2003.  The Government’s 2011 White Paper ‘Water for Life’ announced plans for a new abstraction regime which aims to balance environmental objectives with fairer distribution of available resources.

The proposed new regime will set out to correct imbalances and remove barriers to the trading of abstraction licences and bulk supplies. If one abstractor has more capacity or supplies than they need, they can sell or trade it to another.


Defra has been developing its plans for abstraction reform via consultation (2013 and 2016) and by undertaking further policy work.
The ‘Water Abstraction Plan Policy’ (December 2017) sets out how the Government will reform water abstraction management over the coming years and how this will protect the environment and improve access to water. The plan includes three main elements:
• Using existing regulatory powers and approaches to address unsustainable abstraction
• Developing a stronger catchment focus and local solutions
• Supporting these reforms by modernising the abstraction service.

Progress made on abstraction reform is to be reported to Parliament by May 2019.

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan sets out government actions with regard to reforming the approach to water abstraction. These include:
• Making sure that water companies take a leading role in addressing unsustainable abstraction as part of the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP), due in March 2018;
• Regulating all significant abstractions that have been historically exempt to make sure that they also play a part in protecting the water environment by 2022 and
• Updating ten abstraction licensing strategies by 2021 and all remaining strategies by 2027 to capture agreed solutions to environmental pressures in catchments.