DEFRA sets out alternative route to abstraction reform

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last week published its long-awaited plan for reforming the water abstraction system, which is now widely considered outdated.

The plan features:

  • Strong catchment focus – the aim is to bring together the Environment Agency, abstractors and catchment groups to develop local solutions to existing pressures and to prepare for the future. The department said these local solutions will: protect the environment by changing licences to better reflect water availability in catchments and reduce the impact of abstraction; and improve access to water by introducing more flexible conditions that support water storage, water trading and efficient use.

  • Use of existing tools – DEFRA said it intends to make full use of existing regulatory powers and approaches to address unsustainable abstraction and move around 90% of surface water bodies and 77% of groundwater bodies to the required standards by 2021.

  • Modernisation – the department said the abstraction service will be brought up to date, with all significant abstraction regulated and regulations brought into line with other environmental permitting regimes.

The abstraction system was originally expected to be reformed through primary legislation, but earlier this year, water minister Therese Coffey said there was too much Brexit-derived pressure on parliamentary time for this to be feasible in the short term. The new plan sets out an alternative path. DEFRA has committed to report to parliament by May 2019 on progress made.