Groundwater Issues

Implications of the Water Act 2003


The Environment Agency of England & Wales issues abstraction licences to individuals and organisations, which authorise the abstraction of a given volume of water, with conditions aimed at protecting the environment and other abstractors’ needs. This legislative framework dates back to the 1960s.

Drought during the mid-nineties resulted in the 1997 Water Summit, producing a 10-point plan on improving water management. The review led to the publication in 1999 of ‘Taking Water Responsibly’. This signalled important changes including:

The Water Act is the final element of the Government’s strategy to modernise the regulatory framework in England & Wales. The Act heralds a new era in the management and regulation of water resources. It aims to provide a modern, efficient and robust legislative framework to facilitate both sustainable water resources management and economic growth through the new provisions it contains.

The Environment Agency is the leading public agency for protection and improvement of the air, land and water environment in England and Wales. Within this broad remit they are responsible for strategic water resources planning and the management of water resources through the abstraction licensing system. The Agency will be responsible for implementing many of the provisions of the Act.

Key Features of the Water Act affecting Groundwater

  • All small abstractions, generally under 20 cubic metres per day (m³/d), will not need a licence.
  • Dewatering of mines, quarries and engineering works, use of water for trickle irrigation and abstractions in areas currently exempt will need a licence. The transfer of water for navigation will also need a licence.
  • Three licence categories - full, transfer and temporary - replace the single licence used at present.
  • The licence application process will be simplified, with the Environment Agency taking on much of the responsibility
  • All abstractors now have responsibility not to let their abstraction cause damage to others. Damaging licences can be amended or revoked without compensation after 2012. Unused licences may be revoked without compensation.
  • Water companies and the public sector have a new duty to promote water conservation. The Government will monitor performance.
  • Water Companies will be required by law to develop, consult upon and publish water resource management and drought plans.
  • The Act opens up the market for supplying water to industrial/commercial customers with water supplies of greater than 50 Ml/a.
  • The Act places the pollution control function of The Coal Authority on a statutory basis and provides them with a number of statutory powers in pursuing these functions

The Act introduces many varied and complex provisions. As with most modern statutes, these provisions do not all come into effect immediately. Commencement Orders are required, which will be promoted by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) at an appropriate time to ensure an orderly introduction of the new measures. Different commencement dates can apply to different provisions.

For more detailed information or interpretation, please refer to the Environment Agency’s booklet ‘The Water Act 2003 – Modernising the Regulation of Water Resources’.