Q&A: Water abstraction policy reform

Ministers are planning a shake-up of the water abstraction licensing system to ensure that the UK becomes more efficient in the way it uses water and manages supply.

The government recently launched a public consultation on reforming the current system, which was set up in the 1960s, for managing water abstraction from aquifers and rivers.

Responses to the Defra consultation, “Making the Most of Every Drop – Consultation on Reforming the Water Abstraction Management System” , were released to the public last month.

However, Defra says there is still a fair level of misunderstanding among farmers about what the changes could mean for agriculture. As a result, the department has prepared a Q&A for Farmers Weekly readers in a bid to clear up some of the misconceptions about what is proposed in the consultation.

Q: When will the reformed system be in place?

A: We have consulted on our abstraction reform proposals and just published a summary of the responses we received. We are hoping to implement the reforms in the early 2020s.

Q: If I abstract less than 20cu m/day, would I need to have an abstraction permission in the reformed system?

A: No, there are no plans to change the 20cu m/day threshold for abstractors in the reformed system.

Q: Would compensation be paid for changes to abstraction permissions?

A: No, any changes would be made without compensation being payable, but abstractors will be given significant notice. Abstractors would no longer pay the Environmental Improvement Unit Charge (EIUC), helping to save on costs for many abstractors.

Q: In developing transition approaches to set initial permitted abstraction volumes or shares, why have you focused on past actual abstraction rather than licensed volumes?

A: Our preference is to focus on recent abstraction, rather than licenses based on the past when circumstances were different. Much of the currently unused licensed water could not be used without damaging the environment, so is not “real” available water.

Q: Will the method for transitioning abstraction licences into the reformed system take account of the different ways sectors use their licences?

A: We have not yet made any decision on what method would be used to move abstraction licences into the reformed system. We have sought your views on a range of options in our consultation and are currently considering your responses in detail. We understand that farmers’ abstraction of water varies greatly depending on weather patterns and cropping cycles.

Q: How would new abstractors gain access to water in the reformed system?

A: In a catchment where there was available water, a prospective abstractor could apply to the Environment Agency for a specific volume of water to abstract, which they would have to demonstrate a need for in a similar way to the current system. If there was no available water, or at least none with the level of reliability required by the abstractor, they would have to enter the market to buy access to water over the short or long term from other abstractors who wanted to sell. This should be easier in the new system.

Q: In the reformed system, would abstractors be able to take additional water at high flows and how would they know when this was?

A: Yes. One of our key proposals is to allow abstractors to make better use of high flows. Abstractors would be contacted in a variety of ways, such as via a text message, email, and social media or through a designated app. Abstractors would be able to view their water account online.

Q: Would all abstraction points need water meters that report to the regulator rather than abstractors providing details of abstracted quantities in the reformed system?

A: No, we have proposed that only abstractions in enhanced catchments would need smart meters; these catchments are where pressure on water availability and/or the benefits from trading would mean systems would need to be enhanced to manage water better. Abstractors in basic catchments would report their water abstraction using methods similar to those they do now.

Q: Would abstractors have to trade with other sectors in the reformed system?

A: There would not be a requirement to trade as a result of the proposed reforms. It would be up to abstractors to decide if they wish to buy or sell access to water. This could be either with abstractors within their own sector, or with abstractors in different sectors.

Q: In the reformed system, would abstractors who invest in water storage be able to trade water they have collected?

A: Yes. We believe this would help abstractors collaborate to finance investment in storage projects. So for instance, a number of irrigators could invest in a reservoir in part of the catchment and the water could easily be transferred to those irrigators when they need it, or sold to others.

Read also: Water reform gives farmers opportunity to review needs

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