The government has unveiled new plans to restrict water abstraction for agriculture to protect the environment.
Defra said it wanted to end damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater wherever it was cost-effective to do so – while improving access to water where it was needed most.
The plan confirms the government’s approach to abstraction management on an environmental and catchment basis over the next five years until 2022.
The Environment Agency will use its existing powers to amend abstraction licences to protect the environment – prioritising changes to licences having the greatest impact, it says.
This work should see around 90% of surface water bodies and 77% of groundwater bodies meet the required standards by 2021.
Defra minister Thérèse Coffey said: “The abstraction licensing system is in clear need of reform and I am very pleased to set out how we will do this in our plan.”
She added: “I believe our approach will work for all parties and, most importantly, will protect our precious water supplies.”
More than 1,000 time-limited abstraction licences will be reviewed by 2021 and adjusted as necessary to ensure they do not allow environmental damage.
All permanent licences shown to be seriously damaging will be adjusted.
An estimated 600 unused licences that are no longer needed will be revoked and the government will work with abstractors to reduce under-used licences.
It says this will prevent increased abstraction from creating new environmental pressures.
NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett said it was important that farmers received their fair share of water for agriculture and horticulture.
Mr Hammett said: “The NFU continues to support the idea of abstraction reform whilst seeking reassurances that the upheaval caused by major rule changes will be kept to a minimum.
“Water availability is everybody’s problem and the abstraction plan’s focus on partnership working at local level is to be welcomed.
“The NFU will be keen to test the proposed catchment plan approach to establish whether it can deliver more water for food production.”