Environmental Information Exchange


Legislation on water relates to both abstraction and discharge.


If a business takes water from any source other than a water company (e.g. if it draws water directly from a river or a well) it must apply for an abstraction licence.

The Water Resources Act 1991 controls the abstraction and impounding of water. Businesses generally need a licence to carry out these activities, although some activities are exempt. In November 2003 the Water Act 2003 was passed which included the following changes which might affect a business:

•  small abstractions, under 20 cubic metres per day (m3/d), do not generally need a licence;
•  in some locations this threshold may not be sufficient to protect the environment and a lower threshold may be set;
•  abstraction for certain uses which were previously exempt now require a licence;

The new legislation also gave the Environment Agency new enforcement powers and increased the maximum fine that can be imposed for each offence from £5,000 to £20,000

For further information and to apply for a license, see the Environment Agency website.


Water that leaves a business' site is said to be discharged by that business. It can leave through the foul sewers, through the rainwater drains or directly to a river, pond or lake ("surface waters"). A business is legally obliged to ensure that water that has been contaminated, for example by manufacturing or cleaning processes on site - "trade effluent" - is discharged to the sewer system so that the contaminants can be treated. All businesses should have a contract with a sewerage provider which will charge according to the level and type of contaminants in the water that is discharged. Alternatively, a business may be able to install equipment to decontaminate the effluent, in which case a permit from the environment agency is required to discharge the treated effluent to the rainwater drains or to surface or ground waters.

For further information on what constitutes trade effluent, see the Netregs website.

Surface Run-off

Take care with surface run-off - for example, water that runs off a parking area or vehicle washing area may be contaminated with oil or surfactants. A business can be prosecuted if it discharges contaminated run-off from its site to surface waters or groundwater. For clarification on surface run-off issues, contact the Environment Agency.

When applying for planning permission for a new building, site plans for sustainable drainage systems (SUDS) to manage rainwater run-off may need to be included. For further information, see this section in the Environment Agency website.

Environmental Damage

In March 2009, new regulations came into force that require polluters to prevent and repair damage to water systems (or to land quality, species and their habitats and protected sites). The polluter does not need to be at fault, simply to have caused the pollution, so there is no requirement for a prosecution to prove negligence or intent first, which should ensure that the damage can be repaired faster.
For further information see The Environmental Damage (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations 2009.