Abstraction is the permanent or temporary removal of water from rivers, canals, lakes, reservoirs or underground aquifers for human water management – potable supply, agricultural and industrial use etc

The right to abstract water in England and Wales was formally created by the Water Act of 1963. At the time, this was done with little or no consideration of what level of abstraction water bodies could actually sustain in terms of the needs of fish and aquatic wildlife.

Now, a third of river catchments in England and Wales are either ‘over-licensed’ or ‘over-abstracted’ according to the Environment Agency. Current levels of abstraction are causing significant ecological problems in over 1,000 river water bodies, and 42% of groundwater bodies (pretty much all off those in the south and east of England) are failing.

More water is being taken out than the environment can sustain - the system is broken.

We now know that unnaturally low flows and altered flow regimes caused by water abstraction can damage river systems, and their associated fish populations, invertebrates and plants. This includes:

  • Hydrological and hydraulic changes; modifying in-stream habitat and altering the width, depths, velocity patterns and shear stresses within the system.
  • Changes and reductions in invertebrate assemblages
  • Water quality changes; reducing a river’s ability to dilute pollutants, such as phosphorus or toxic agricultural chemicals.
  • Increase sediment deposition, thus suppressing weed growth such as Ranunculus and therefore available cover and food for fish and invertebrates, and smothering spawning habitat for fish species.
  • Increase water temperature, and thus decrease dissolved oxygen in the water, which can seriously impact salmonids
  • Disruption to migratory fish and invertebrate passages
  • Reduced connectivity with floodplains and riparian margins.
  • Increases in invasion of non-native species

Defra has acknowledged that the current system needs updating and is consulting on reforming the abstraction regime, but this will not be delivered until the 2020s. We strongly support Defra’s desire for a new reform to link access to water availability. However, the assessment of what water is available to abstract after the environment has had its share, will be crucial.

The recent Water Act 2014 did not provide the enabling powers to take forward abstraction reform, which will therefore require new primary legislation in the next Parliament. Instead, the Act committed Defra to report to Parliament by 2018 on progress towards implementing the new regime. .

S&TCUK believes abstraction reform is essential and urges the next Parliament to prioritize primary legislation in order to increase resilience in the water abstraction sector and protect the water environment.

Further to this, any new abstraction licensing system will not deal with existing damaging abstractions. This will continue via the Restoring Sustainable Abstraction (RSA) programme.

S&TCUK believes is it essential that the RSA programme is completed without further delay to ensure additional environmental damage is prevented and restoration can begin.

Futher information