Water Abstraction & Discharge Permits

Active water management is an important undertaking in many outdoor industries such as quarrying, civil engineering, aggregate recycling and mineral processing plants. Whilst such sites often consume water for on-site use, oftentimes they have an excess from rainfall or groundwater seepage and have to actively de-water.

Agriculture and factories need to source water, as of course do water suppliers.

Water Abstraction – An Overview

Fresh water is a necessity for life in human and wildlife ecosystems. Its not just the water we drink and wash with, but nearly every product made relies to some extent on water use. From farm produce to house bricks, a lot of water is used; even browsing the internet relies largely on water-cooled data centres. 

Water is not made, so every drop we use has to be abstracted from (and eventually returned to) the earth’s natural water cycle. Water companies source their fresh water from reservoirs, whilst it is often beneficial for agriculture and industry to abstract from nearby rivers or boreholes.

Natural eco-systems also rely on water, as much as we do. When water sourcing is well managed and resources are shared equitably, problems are minimised. This is why water abstraction is controlled by government agencies such as the Environment Agency (England), NRW (Wales), SEPA (Scotland) and NIEA (Northern Ireland). Whilst these bodies operate at a regional level and use differing terminology at times, the underlying concepts are the same across the United Kingdom.

Key Legislation

  • Water Resources (Abstraction and Impounding) Regulations 2006.
  • Water Resources (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2017.
  • Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016.
  • Water Act 2014: this is due to be merged with the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR), however existing consents will remain TIP: don’t let these expire!

The Acts of Parliament are regularly amended via regulatory orders, so keeping up can be a challenge. In this sense, the detail in your permit or licence helps provide clarity.

Do I Need A Permit, Or A Licence?

The EA issues abstraction licences and discharge permits.

There are two types of abstraction licences, a full licence and a transfer licence.

Since 2018, sites needing to discharge groundwater offsite also need an abstraction transfer licence - in addition to a discharge permit.

However, if the excess site-water can be shown to be mainly rainwater, and this is kept from contamination, then an abstraction licence will not be required.

Who Needs An Abstraction Licence?

Anyone abstracting more than 20m3 of water daily from any naturally occurring ‘source of supply’ will need consent. This includes groundwater* (eg from unlined excavations), boreholes, rivers, streams and estuaries. There are a few exemptions to needing an abstraction licence, including:

  • Small-scale, short-term (projects complete within 6 months) dewatering of building sites to prevent interference with engineering works – subject to restrictions.
  • Water collection that is defined as exempt under a “regulatory position statement” such as rainwater harvesting

*An abstraction licence, in addition to a discharge consent, is required for dewatering a site (pumping off excess water).

Abstraction permissions focus on QUANTITY. The aim is to reduce over-taxing the local resources and keep water levels sufficient for eco-health.

Overcoming Licensing Denial

It is possible to get pre-application advice from the Environment Agency on the likelihood of a licence being issued, and what limitations there may be on it. This is a good approach to avoiding a surprise rejection, and will increase your chances of ironing out problems before costs escalate.

If you are denied a licence, or require more water than allowed in your consent, there is a mechanism for trading abstraction permission from a neighbouring licensee. It involves finding and then negotiating with a ‘donor’ business in the catchment area, who updates the EA with the agreed quantity split and duration.

Abstraction Licensing:  What Your Licence Looks Like and What it Means

There are two types of water abstraction licences, depending on what the water is being taken for.

The ‘full licence’ is needed if you are “consuming”, i.e. using the water onsite such as for dust-suppression, aggregate washing, irrigation, or as a product ingredient such as in cement manufacturing.

A ‘transfer licence’ is required for removing water from a source of supply and returning it to nature without changing it’s properties. This is typically used for dewatering, replenishing ground water drained by excavation works, and dredging activity.

Your Agency consent paperwork will consist of the licence itself and a Schedule of Conditions. The former details the licence type (Full or Transfer), the licensed party and the issuer (eg. EA or SEPA Water Resources Team), and crucially the expiry date. Ensure you renew before your licence expires to retain your continuity, or you will need to start a new application (which will likely be more stringent than your previous licence).

The Schedule of Conditions will contain the likes of:

  1. Source of supply – a description of the source, or sources of supply. Eg Underground strata comprising of sands and gravel at [location]
  2. Point of Abstraction – often referring to an area marked on an attached map, and quoting grid reference points, this marks the exact location of consented abstraction.
  3. Means of abstraction – eg. A submersible pump feeding an open lagoon.
  4. Purposes of abstraction - This will list the approved use/s, eg dust suppression, concrete production, dewatering etc. It is important to update the licence if new site water uses are required, such as adding capacity or new water uses. There are often some serious delays in the EA’s licencing process, meaning that early engagement with them and a pre-application is recommended.
  5. Period of abstraction –“all year” or seasonal restrictions.
  6. Maximum quantity of water to be abstracted – this lists the maximum quantity of water per second, per hour, per day and per year. Sites are now required to monitor and record volumes used for each purpose listed on the licence.
  7. Means of measurement – this section details your flow and volume metering requirements.
  8. Records – general requirements are to keep records ready for inspection for at least 6 years, and submit data to the Agency annually (between 3rd March and 26th April)
  9. Further conditions – check these carefully as they may contain site specific restrictions.

Discharge Permits:  An Overview

Discharging effluent or contaminated water offsite is highly regulated, as without effective controls it can lead to severe problems of pollution, flooding, silting up or eroding riverbeds, and reduction of oxygen content in waterways.

The key pieces of legislation that covers discharges in England are the Environmental Permitting Regulations, 2010, Surface Water and the Groundwater Regulations, 2009.

The vast majority of commercial dewatering operations require formal permission from the relevant Environmental authority. This certainly applies to large construction sites, civil engineering works, quarries, and factories that need to discharge into ‘Controlled Waters’.

If you operate an A1 class of installation (as defined in the Environmental Permitting Regulations), such as a quarry, recycling plant, or waste processing facility you may need to combine your discharge consent application with your site’s operational licence.

Whilst quantity and flow-rate is regulated, with a daily cap set, the main focus when it comes to water discharges is QUALITY.

What About Small, Emergency Discharges Of Water?

In certain prescribed instances there is scope for the temporary, small-scale discharge of uncontaminated water into local watercourses.  The schemes set out the narrow parameters in which, to quote the Environment Agency, “…will not normally [result in] enforcement action…”  They point out that this practical application to enforcement does not dilute your legal requirements to prevent pollution.

In England and Wales, this non-permit scheme is covered by the EA’s RPS 261 (Regulatory Position Statement 261), whilst Scotland’s SEPA has a General Binding Rules (GBR) in place for discharges of uncontaminated run-off water.  In Northern Ireland, you need to check with the NIEA for discharge consents. 

In general, whether a formal discharge licence is required or if the dewatering operation fits inside the RPS, similar principles apply. For example:

  • Particular care should be taken near sensitive sites, such as SSSI, chalk rivers, nature reserves etc.  Check the affected River Basin Management Plan and your local council.
  • Discharged water should have similar temperature and pH values to the receptor’s naturally occurring values.
  • Conditions should be monitored regularly and appropriate action taken where parameters fall outside of the RPS description.
  • The waste-water management plan should be updated to reflect changes in working practices or conditions.
  • Records should be kept available for inspection by local authorities for a period (usually a min of 2 years for temporary discharge activities and 6 years for licensed discharges).
  • The discharge shall not cause, or be likely to cause environmental damage.

Whilst the RPS and GBR schemes reduce the burden on the authorities, and may help those conducting temporary dewatering of sites, the limitations of this make the exemption very narrow. Below are examples (not a full list):

  • You may only discharge clean water.
  • The need for discharge must be temporary (no more than 3 months) .
  • The exemption doesn’t apply to quarry workings. In emergency cases, quarry companies can request a Local Enforcement Position from the EA, which is a promise from them not to prosecute – subject to stated conditions.
  • Engineering needs to show how contamination of the excavation/water has been minimised.
  • No machinery is to be used in excavations while dewatering is taking place.
  • The plan must consider how to minimise water entering the excavation in the first place. For example, run-off from rainfall could be collected before it gets contaminated.
  • Consideration of sustainable urban drainage (SUDS) construction methods should minimise hard-surface run-off.
  • Monitor flow rate and contact the Environment Agency if your discharge rate is more than 10% of the dry weather flow (Q95 low flow) rate of the receiving waterbody and dilution is low – a high discharge rate may increase flash-flood risk or have other local environmental consequences.
  • Keep records for 2 years that show you have complied with this RPS and make these records available to the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales on request (England & Wales).

The RPS appears to be aimed at preventing a heavy-handed application of the law for small-scale works that are caught out by adverse weather. More guidance on temporary dewatering permission is on the UK government site. 

If you operate a commercial site, you will very likely need to obtain a permit for discharging wastewater off-site. 

Discharge Permits:  What Your Permit Includes

The consolidated permit identifies the site “operator” and site location. Conditions cover the general Management requirements, discharge monitoring points, onsite storage of potential pollutants, and other responsibilities of the operator.

Schedule 1 gives the description of the discharge activity, and schedule 2 covers any particular waste types. However, it is most often schedule 3 “Emissions and monitoring” that contains the most important details, such as:

  • Effluent description and discharge points – eg surface water runoff, groundwater and water derived from settlement of mineral washing to prevent interference with site infrastructure.
  • Limits of quality & quantity parameters – eg daily volume cap, maximum flow rate (litres per second), max suspended solids content (mg/l), turbidity, allowable pH range, and any other pollutants that the Agency consider likely, depending on the nature of the site.
  • Monitoring frequency, and monitoring sample point – a grid reference will be stated where routine samples are to be taken, this is usually at the same point as specified for discharge.

Water Discharge Activity: Discharges to surface waters.

‘Surface waters’ include estuaries, streams, dikes, rivers, canals, and lakes or ponds connected to such waterways.

Groundwater Activity: Discharges to ground.

This is where effluent or wastewater is discharged onto or into the ground, such as spreading wastewater or treated sewage going into the ground via an infiltration system.

What About Discharges To Sewers?

Industrial effluent can be discharged into sewers, with a “trade effluent consent” issued from your local sewage wastewater company. This wastewater company is then answerable to the EA for treating this waste and discharging it properly. The Environment Agency encourages this disposal method where it is feasible.

Any Other Permits Necessary?

Other permits may be required, either along with a discharge consent, or as stand-alone permissions:

  • Any engineering or construction works on or near watercourses (generally within 8metres). Depending on the water course in question the permitting authority will be:
  • EA, who can issue Flood Risk Activity Permit (FRAP) for Main Rivers.
  • IDB (Internal Drainage Board) deals with Byelaw Consents for tributary watercourses.
  • Council Ordinary Watercourse Consent (OWC) for all others.

You will need an impounding licence for any work to a structure that changes the flow levels of a watercourse. This includes demolishing, altering, or building new dams, weirs and the likes.

Complying With Your Regulatory Consent

It is vital to be able to demonstrate compliance by collecting evidence and keeping up-to-date records of your water management activities. Records should be available for inspection at any time and kept for a minimum period of 6 years. The EA now requires online submission of water abstraction and/or discharge data every March (audit returns). Good records throughout the year help you reduce risk and can save a lot of time and aggro when you get ad-hoc site visits or requests for info from the Agency.

However, if data records are kept only for EA reporting then we’re missing out on their true value. Regularly review them, particularly looking for deviations and trends, and take action based on this. Nothing is ever perfect. What matters is that you are in the know and are taking action to avoid repeat or foreseeable failings. Remember to record everything; record, review, change, record, review, change….

“Monitor your monitoring and control your controls” Paul Burfitt

Technology Does The ‘Heavy-Lift’ On Records And Data

If you use the right software and automation technology, and ingrain good practice in your team then it doesn’t have to take up a huge amount of management time. Reach out to internal and external SMEs (subject matter experts) for help on specialist areas.

Examples of software include Atlantic Pumps’ Senteos, a digital recording and control platform, and Checkproof, an app-based checklist and reporting system.

Water Management Plans (WMP)

A Water Management plan (WMP) is drawn up by the site operator to document how they will deal with water issues arising from their activities. It details the risks identified, the monitoring points, management methods, the mitigations, and protections that are in place.

A robust WMP is required for many planning permission and environmental consent applications that have a potential impact on water levels and quality, including aquifer and groundwater. It often forms part of the conditions of planning permission and environmental licensing.

In addition to day-to-day water management, the WMP should contain contingency actions to be taken in times of emergency. A hydrological risk assessment will identify factors likely to affect the site/water environment, such as extreme weather events, and forecasted changes to site hydro-geological conditions as work progresses.

Common environmental risks to water include:

  • Potentially polluting contaminants on sites where plant and machinery are operated (eg hydrocarbon fuels, oil, and suspended solids such as sand and soil).

        Fine suspended solids can be particularly challenging to remove from slurry, yet cause drains and rivers to silt up. It also poses a risk to fish and underwater plant life by blocking out sunlight, even if it is chemically harmless.

Methods of control include oil separation traps in the drainage system, pumping silt-contaminated water into onsite storage such as lined settlement lagoons or lamella tanks, flocculant/coagulant treatment, and mechanical filtration.

  • Concrete and cement water has a high pH value, which needs neuturalising before discharge.

EnviroHub is one of the treatment systems used to correct high pH and remove cementitious silt.

  • Groundwater ingress from a high water table and/or ground excavation can cause flooding or lowering of the natural water levels, leading to damage of the eco-system and loss of resources for existing water users.

Site groundwater can be drained into sumps, or pumped into receptor tanks or lined lagoons. This prevents uncontrolled runoff and allows for steady treatment and release under an abstraction and discharge licence.

  • The usual practice is to install submersible pumps suspended from a floating pontoon or davit, so that surface debris and heavy solids are avoided.
  • Quarry and mine water aren’t considered mining waste whilst in storage onsite (eg in a lined tailings dam).

Summary and Conclusions

Water and wastewater regulations can be complex, with the stakes of non-compliance being high. The fines for large companies run into the millions of pounds, with breaches affecting company reputation, future development opportunities, and of course our precious natural eco-system.

Companies want to do the right thing, and invest a lot of time and resource to get it right. New innovations are making compliance easier, with cost-effective solutions and expert support available.

If you get involved with water abstraction or discharge, ask Atlantic Pumps for help making improvements and keeping ahead of the latest developments.

follow us on LinkedIn