Regulator to look at industrial water use

The Environment Agency is to consider the way it grants licences to companies which need to extract water from rivers or tap into underground sources in an effort to conserve supplies and protect local ecosystems.

Such licences have existed for decades and the older agreements were made without the benefits of today’s environmental knowledge.

With this in mind, the agency has launched a consultation into a new charging scheme which will help reduce unsustainable levels of abstraction, prevent the loss of wetland habitats and protect species threatened with extinction.

The EA’s chief executive Barbara Young said water abstraction could damage the environment if too much was taken from a particular source.

“This has the effect of drying out the local environment, so that it can no longer sustain the plants, insects and bugs that are the foundations of ecosystems – meaning that fish, birds and other wildlife are unable to survive,” she said.

“In extreme cases, wetlands and streams may dry up and river levels drop, which kill off life in the river.

“It’s our job to protect the environment and make sure that protected species and habitats are not damaged by the licences and permits we issue to our customers.

“But we’re finding that licences issued 20 or 40 years ago are now causing damage because pressures on the environment have changed over time.

“When many of these licences were granted there was no time limit and less information available about the environmental impacts of abstraction, future availability of water and climate change. We need to take action to stop these historical licences from damaging the environment now.”

Since 2001 new licences have all been granted for a limited time period, but those issued before that date were open ended.

In cases where existing licences have to be scrapped or renegotiated, compensation may have to be paid.

“Although this will be the case for only a small number of licences, we are required to make compensation available to those who are affected,” said Baroness Young.

The Environment Agency has been working to find a solution that will be as fair as possible to all licence payers. This has involved earlier consultations and discussions with government.

This consultation covers new ways to recover compensation.

It sets out the charge increases that would be needed if the same charge were applied nationally to all licence payers, compared to the charge increases that would be necessary if it was calculated on a regional basis.

A spokesperson for the agency told edie she was unable to release examples of sites where excessive water use was harming ecosystems, but that at sites where environmental damage was suspected, there would be an initial screening to determine whether abstraction was really the problem.

“We then carry out detailed investigations to establish whether abstraction is contributing towards the problem,” she said.

“This can include ecological monitoring and modelling river levels and flows and groundwater levels. We haven’t yet completed our work of reviewing abstraction licences and details of all the licences that may be affected are not yet available.”

Sam Bond

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