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Changes to water abstraction licensing exemptions

From 1st January 2018, most previously exempt abstractions (if over 20m³/day exemption threshold) will require a licence to continue legally abstracting water

Why and how are we making changes?

Water abstraction is the process of taking water directly from surface water, such as rivers, or ground water, such as boreholes, and can have a significant impact on the environment it supports. Therefore, most abstractions are licensed.

However, the water abstraction licensing system in England and Wales has developed over the past 50 years, and certain abstractions have remained exempt from licensing control. These abstractors have legally been able to take an unlimited supply of water, without consideration of impacts on the environment or other water users.  

So that we can manage water resources in a fair and comprehensive way, and to satisfy the requirements of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), the Water Act 2003 made some changes to the way we need to regulate abstractions and impoundments which pose impact to the water environment.

We jointly consulted with Welsh Government, Defra and the Environment Agency between January and April 2016 on our intended approach to bringing previously exempt abstractions under licensing control. 

A formal response to the consultation outlining the final policy approach and next steps has been published by the UK Governments (Welsh Government and Defra).

Two new regulations have been introduced to enable the delivery of the new policy:

Water Resources (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2017
Water Resources (Exemptions) Regulations 2017

What has changed?

From 1 January 2018, most previously exempt abstractions (if over 20m³/day exemption threshold) will require a licence to continue legally abstracting water. These abstractions are often termed ‘New Authorisations’ and include:

  • Water transfers from one inland water to another in the case of, or as a result of, operations carried out by a navigation, harbour or conservancy authority
  • Abstractions into internal drainage districts but not including land drainage activities
  • Dewatering of mines, quarries and engineering works. See our guidance on licensing dewatering activities for an explanation of when a licence is required
  • Warping (abstraction of water containing silt for deposit onto agricultural land as a fertiliser)
  • All forms of irrigation (except for spray irrigation which is already licensable) and the use of land drainage systems in reverse (including transfers into managed wetland systems) to maintain field water levels
  • The majority of abstractions by Crown and visiting forces exemptions 
  • Abstractions within previously geographically exempt groundwater and surface water* areas (*please note the map does not cover the Tennant Canal surface water exemption. Please contact us if you abstract from this canal)

Some abstractions that are considered low risk will remain exempt:

  • Transfers downstream of the normal tidal limit by navigation, harbour and conservancy authorities, other than in the hour before or after low tide
  • Abstraction in connection with dredging operations authorised by an authority in the exercise of its statutory functions in relation to those waters upstream of the normal tidal limit and any abstraction downstream of the normal tidal limit
  • Abstraction of water within managed wetland systems (subject to the main abstraction into the system being licensed) and impounding works solely for the management, operation or maintenance of water within managed wetland systems
  • Impounding works constructed by or on behalf of Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) to exercise their functions within their appointed area
  • Dewatering of underground strata and abstractions of surface waters to prevent interference with building or engineering works where the abstraction lasts less than six consecutive months (subject to restrictions)
  • Third-party operated dry docks that transfer water to and from a navigation authority’s water system
  • Impounding works when required in an emergency 
  • Emergency abstraction or impounding where undertaken by port, harbour or conservancy authorities

Based on our current estimates we expect to licence up to 300 previously exempt abstractions within Wales.

What does this mean for me?

You must apply for a transitional water resources licence if:

  • At any time since 1 January 2011 you have abstracted under an exemption which will be removed from 1 January 2018 and
  • You wish to continue abstracting after 31 December 2017

Special transitional arrangements are in place which require:

  • You to submit a transitional water resources licence application between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2019 (two-year application window)
  • Us to determine your licence application between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2022 (three-year licence determination window)

We are recommending that you apply for a licence before September 2019 as it may take 3 months or more to check, acknowledge and address any issues with your application. So submit as soon as possible.

Applications that are found to be invalid will be rejected and risk missing the opportunity to resubmit a valid application and take advantage of the transitional arrangements.

You can continue to abstract water at the same quantities you abstracted between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2017 until we have reached a decision on your application.

How do I make an application for a transitional water resources licence?

Please complete Application form WRH using Guidance note WRH to help you. Send your application to us: 

By email, to, or

By post, to Permit Receipt Centre, Natural Resources Wales, Tŷ Cambria, 29 Newport Road, Cardiff, CF24 0EY.

Details on the information you must include in your application are provided within the form and guidance note

Your application will need to be accompanied by an application fee. Annual charges may also be payable. Fees and charges are set out in our abstraction charges scheme and may change each April.

Some applications may have to be advertised. If this applies to your application, you will need to pay a £100 administration fee to advertise your application in the local newspaper plus the cost of the advert.

We will let you know if we are able to grant you a licence(s) and explain our decision. Any licence granted will contain the conditions you must follow to legally abstract.

Important information

Due to the high number of applications we expect to receive we will aim to check and acknowledge your application within three months of receipt.

If your application does not meet the requirements of a valid application we will send you a letter explaining why.

We cannot guarantee to check all applications received within three months of the 31 December 2019 application period deadline so we are recommending that you apply for a licence before September 2019.

Those that are found to be invalid will be rejected and risk missing the opportunity to resubmit a valid application and take advantage of the transitional arrangements. 

There can be no extension to the application period deadline of 31 December 2019. We therefore strongly recommend that you submit your application in good time before the transitional application period closes on 31 December 2019.

How do I change my abstraction or start abstracting for a previously exempt activity?

The transitional application process only applies to existing abstractors who are able to demonstrate that they have abstracted water for an activity/within an area that was previously exempt from licensing between 1st January 2011 and 31st December 2017.

If from 1 January 2018 onwards, you need to:

  • abstract more water than abstracted between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2017 for an activity/within an area that was previously exempt from licensing; or
  • abstract from a different source of supply or location for an activity/within an area that was previously exempt from licensing; or
  • continue abstracting water for an activity/within an area that was previously exempt from licensing but do not have any evidence to show that you have abstracted water between 1st January 2011 and 31st December 2017; or
  • begin abstracting water for an activity/within an area that was previously exempt from licensing

The transitional arrangements do not apply and you will need to apply for a licence through our standard licensing process. This will be in addition to any transitional application you are required to submit for any existing/historic water use.

How long will it take to make a decision on my application?

The transitional arrangements require us to make a decision on your licence application between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2022.

The standard licence application process requires us to make a decision on your licence application within 3 – 4 months, depending on whether advertising is required.

We will aim to accommodate requests to make a decision on transitional licence applications ahead of 31 December 2022 where there is justified reason for doing so. This is likely to be (but not limited to) cases where:

  • it would be impossible or too complex to determine a related standard (ie business growth, change of source of supply/location or unevidenced historic operation/usage) application ahead of the transitional (ie historic operation/usage) application
  • a decision on the transitional application is required ahead of the determination deadline of 31 December 2022 and would prevent you (or those dependent on the abstraction) making informed investment decisions

If you wish to request early determination of a transitional licence application we strongly recommend you contact us in the first instance to discuss the requirements. When submitting your transitional licence application you will need to clearly specify that early determination of your application is being requested and, if applicable, provide details on any related standard application(s). You will need to include evidenced justification (eg business plans, status of required planning permission/other consents) for earlier determination together with all the supporting information required for us to progress and make a decision on your application (eg evidence of historic usage and rights of access).

I abstract in Wales and England. Who do I apply to?

If your abstraction spans the Wales-England political boundary you will need to submit an application to us for the abstractions within Wales and to the Environment Agency for abstractions within England. Please visit website for more information on submitting applications to the Environment Agency.

What may happen if I don’t apply for a licence?

It is your responsibility to ensure you apply for the required licence(s). It is an offence to abstract without a licence. 

We may take enforcement action if:

  • For abstractions commenced before 1 Jan 2018 - You do not apply for the required transitional water resources licences within the two-year transitional application period (1 January 2018 and 31 December 2019) and continue to abstract after the application window closes
  • From 1 January 2018 - You commence new abstractions for previously exempt activities or increase your pre 1 Jan 2018 abstraction rates without securing the appropriate licences via the standard licence application process

Further Information

If you have any questions about what you need to do to comply with the changes please contact us by email at or by phone on 0300 065 3000.

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