What is an abstraction?
An abstraction is the removal or diversion of water from the
water environment. It can be carried out by a variety of means
including a pump, pipes, an engineering structure in a watercourse,
a borehole or a well. In terms of regulation, an abstraction
requires authorisation whether it is carried out on a permanent or
Do the regulations apply to me?
If you own or operate any of the following, you
will require some form of authorisation from
- Inland water abstractions.
- Coastal and transitional water abstractions.
- Construction of, and abstraction from, wells and boreholes
(including pumping tests).
The following activities are not regulated
- covered by general binding rules (GBRs) 2, 4, 15 and 17;
- of water from the public water supply infrastructure;
- as a result of land drainage works;
- to enable work within a river, including the over pumping of
water (this activity is covered under authorisation for the
associated engineering works);
- resulting from a diversion or from the operation of flood
relief culverts (the construction of these structures is covered
under the engineering section);
- by vessels where the water is returned to the water environment
directly from the vessel;
- stored in off-line impoundments (see section 5 of the CAR
Practical Guide for definition) and artificial storage ponds which
receive their flow from an already authorised abstraction;
- from artificial treatment systems, including Sustainable Urban
Drainage Systems (SUDS) and quarry settlement lagoons;
- for the purposes of fire-fighting;
- that remove rainwater from construction site excavation or
quarries of volcanic or metamorphic rocks (eg basalt, granite and
schist). Note that if the dewatering of groundwater from such
excavations does not comply with GBR15, the abstraction must be
authorised by SEPA (see section 4.3 of the CAR Practical
Why does it have to be regulated?
Abstraction of water poses the following risks:
- drying out of rivers and wetlands;
- high variable flows of water below hydropower stations and
water supply reservoirs, resulting in bare banks and potential
stranding of fish;
- changing water levels in reservoirs, leading to regular drying
out of the shore line and preventing growth of plants and spawning
- death of fish from passing through turbines;
- interference to the flow of sediment downstream of dams, which
reduces the amount of gravel available (needed by fish to
- interference with other users of the water environment (eg loss
of dilution capacity and resulting deterioration of water quality,
or loss of abstraction capacity).
Large abstractions, such as those for agricultural production
and public water supplies, carry a higher risk of impact to the
environment. Without regulation, these might lead to reduced flows
of water, stranded fish and dried out wetlands.
It is vital that both the construction and operation of
abstraction activities are properly regulated and monitored.
Responsible management of water resources involves ensuring that
river flows, loch and groundwater levels can sustain aquatic
environments, while also allowing use of water for safe drinking,
renewable energy and other agricultural and industrial
Levels of authorisation
There are three levels of authorisation:
What do I need to do?
- General binding rule (GBR): Abstraction
activities considered of low risk to the environment are covered by
a GBR. You will not have to contact SEPA or incur any charges for
this, though you will have to follow a set of rules.
- Registration: Abstractions that pose a low
individual risk, but may collectively give rise to impacts, will
need a registration. For example, inland abstractions of between 10
and 50m3 per day and coastal & transitional water
abstractions of 10m3 per day or more require an
application to SEPA, for which there is a fee. You will not,
however, incur an annual subsistence charge.
- Licence: Abstractions that pose a moderate to
high risk of impact will either a simple licence or – for
activities that need a more complicated environmental assessment –
a complex licence. A licence depends on the identification of a
‘responsible person’ who must ensure compliance with the conditions
of the licence. In both cases, an application charge will apply,
and the activity may also be subject to an annual subsistence
(Please note: If at any point during the application process you
have a query, contact your local SEPA
Changes to your authorisation
- First refer to the relevant chapter in the CAR Practical
Guide (519k) to see if your activity requires
- If your activity falls under a GBR you will not have to do
anything, other than comply with the rules of the GBR. If you
require a registration or a licence, however, you will need to
- Application forms
- Use the charging scheme guidance to determine the cost of the
application and to find out whether a subsistence (annual) fee
applies. Use the charge calculator to determine your fee, by
filling in the details of your activity. (Please note that multiple
activities are eligible for a reduced application fee, which the
scheme guidance (256k)
- Temporary exemptions to charges do apply to some abstraction
activities, for details see below. There is also a full list of all
activities that do not require a charge in Annex II of the charging
- Information on temporary
- Write down the charges in the application form and fill in all
the other details. Then send it to your local
If your activity requires a registration or a licence, you may
also expect to do the following over its duration:
- Have your authorisation revoked: SEPA has powers to withdraw
your authorisation if you fail to meet its conditions.
- Vary it: If you want to change the conditions of your
authorisation, you can apply for a variation.
For licence holders only:
- Transfer it: You can partially or fully transfer your
authorisation to another responsible person.
- Surrender it: You will continue to pay subsistence charges for
a licence, even if you are not carrying out an activity, until you
notify SEPA. To cease paying, you have to surrender the licence by
completing an application form.
Use the appropriate application form (where available) to carry
out each of these actions.
Other useful links and information
- SEPA guidance
Position statements, regulatory methods and supporting
Free environmental guidance for small businesses in the UK and more
information on how to comply with environmental legislation.
- Important information for
How CAR is applied to abstractions.