Water Act

Applies to the whole UK

Title: Water Act

Category: UK Law

Date: 1989, 2003

Reference: 1989 Chapter 15 [Full text], 2003 Chapter 37 [Full text]

General Description:


Under Section 107 of the Water Act it is an offence to cause or knowingly permit a discharge of poisonous, noxious or polluting matter into any Controlled Waters without the proper authority.

Farmers, employees and contractors can be prosecuted for causing pollution. You could be fined up to 20,000 in a Magistrates Court or get an unlimited fine in the Crown Court. A person found guilty of causing pollution may also have to pay for any damage caused and for National Rivers Authority (NRA) costs. The NRA is now part of the UK's Environment Agency.

The Water Act 1989 has several sections designed to prevent water pollution.

  • Section 110 of the Act and the resulting Control of Pollution (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) Regulations 1991 , aim to prevent pollution by silage effluent , slurry, dirty water and fuel oil by setting standards for keeping and handling these substances. Facilities which were designed and built before 1 March 1991 are usually exempt from these rules, but the Environment Agency can request their improvement if there is a significant risk of causing pollution. New, substantially enlarged or substantially reconstructed facilities must meet the standards set out in the Regulations. The Environment Agency must be notified at least 14 days before such facilities are used.

You must follow the Regulations, but doing so is not a defence against a charge of causing pollution. It may however, count in your favour when a court is deciding on a sentence.

  • Under Section 115 of the Act the Environment Agency can do work to prevent or clear up pollution and retrieve the costs from the person responsible.
  • Under Section 118 of the Act the Environment Agency can ask for information to help them prevent water pollution.


With certain exceptions, the 2003 Act only applies to England and Wales; and various functions of the Secretary of State introduced or amended by the Act are devolved to be exercised by the National Assembly for Wales.

The four broad aims of the Act are:

  • the sustainable use of water resources;
  • strengthening the voice of consumers;
  • a measured increase in competition; and
  • the promotion of water conservation.

As far as agriculture is concerned, the main provisions of the Act are that it amends the Water Resources Act 1991 in order to improve long-term water resource management by:

  • creating two new forms of abstraction licence - the transfer licence and the temporary licence (see below);
  • widening the control over impoundments so that licences are required for the whole duration of impoundment works;
  • replacing licensing exemptions based on water use with a new exemption threshold of less than 20 cubic metres of water per day;
  • ending the current exemption for irrigation (other than spray irrigation) and dewatering from the abstraction licensing regime;
  • requiring all new abstraction licences to be time-limited;
  • empowering the Environment Agency to revoke or vary an abstraction licence without compensation if it has not been used for four years; and
  • removing the entitlement to compensation if the Secretary of State (or the Assembly) directs that a licence without a time limit should be curtailed, on or after 15 July 2012, on the grounds of serious environmental damage.

Licence types

  • Temporary licence - required for any abstraction from a source of supply lasting less than 28 days.
  • Transfer licence - available for abstraction of water for 28 days or more for transfer from one source of supply to another without intervening use - for example, from one watercourse to another for the purposes of navigation. A transfer licence is also available for transfers between two points in the same source of supply where the abstraction is related to dewatering of works such as within a quarry. But it is possible to apply for a full licence if the applicant wants full protection from derogation for his transfer abstraction.
  • Full licence - required for any other abstraction for 28 days or more. All current abstraction licences are of this type, even though some relate to abstractions that would require only a "transfer licence". There is no need for existing licences to be converted unless the holder wishes to do it.

Restrictions on impounding

The current restriction on impounding of water makes it an offence to begin to construct or alter an impounding works unless an impounding licence has been obtained. This Act amends the current restriction on impounding in order to impose controls throughout the lifetime of new impounding works. Impounding licences (whether issued before or after the coming into force of this Act) will remain in force for the lifetime of the works, allowing the Agency to attach or modify conditions to the licence to ensure that impounding works do not cause damage to the environment.

Existing impounding works

The new restriction on impounding does not apply retrospectively. However, there are impounding works that are unlicensed, either because their construction pre-dated the licensing regime or a licence has been revoked and some of these works are, or in the future may, cause environmental problems that cannot be addressed by the Agency under its current powers. Section 3 provides the EA with a new power to serve notice to require that an impounding licence is obtained and failure to comply with such a notice would be an offence. Section 4 provides the EA with a power to serve a works notice on the relevant person (normally the owner) to carry out remedial works on an existing impoundment that is causing environmental damage. Failure to comply with the notice is an offence.

Rights to abstract small quantities

This section sets a quantity of 20 cubic metres in any period of 24 hours as the normal threshold above which an abstraction licence is required, irrespective of the source of supply or the purpose of the abstraction (unless it is otherwise exempt). This replaces the present, more complex exemptions framework for small abstractions, under which more than 20,000 abstractions of less than that quantity require licences. The section also provides that where a licence exists, the small quantity exemption does not apply in addition to the licensed quantity for abstractions for the same purpose, but it can be used in addition to a licensed abstraction for a different purpose.

Pertinence to Agriculture: Agricultural Pollution, Water

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