An abstraction is the removal or diversion of water from the natural water environment, by a variety of means, including pumps, pipes, boreholes and wells.
Abstractions are regulated by the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011 – more commonly known as the Controlled Activity Regulations (CAR) – and their further amendments. Our introduction to the regulations summarises its main features.
In terms of regulation, an abstraction requires authorisation, whether it is carried out on a permanent or temporary basis.
- Why do abstractions have to be regulated?
- Do the regulations apply to me?
- What do I need to do?
- Apply for a licence or registration online or by post
- Data returns for abstractions licences
- Exemptions and temporary exemptions
- Compliance with regulations
- Help, advice and more information
Why do abstractions have to be regulated?
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 purposes.
Large abstractions, such as those for agricultural production and public water supplies, carry a higher risk of affecting the environment. Without regulation, these might lead to reduced flows of water, stranded fish and dried out wetlands.
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 fish;
- 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 spawn);
- interference with other users of the water environment (eg loss of dilution capacity and resulting deterioration of water quality, or loss of abstraction capacity).
If you own or operate any of the following, you will require some form of authorisation from us:
- inland water abstractions;
- coastal and transitional water abstractions;
- construction of, and abstraction from, wells and boreholes (including pumping tests).
The level of authorisation required is dependent on the effect that the activity will have on the water environment:
- General binding rules (GBRs) – activities that are considered of low risk to the environment are covered by a GBR. You will not have to contact us or incur any charges, although you will have to follow a set of rules
- Registration – activities that pose a low individual risk, but may collectively affect the environment, will need a registration, require you to apply to us and incur a fee. You will not, however, incur an annual subsistence charge
- Licence – activities that pose a moderate to high risk to the environment will either be 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 charge
We do not regulate the following abstraction activities:
- those covered by general binding rules (GBRs) 2, 4, 15 and 17;
- of water from the public water supply infrastructure;
- resulting from land drainage works;
- those enabling 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;
- those 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 us (see section 4.3 of the CAR Practical Guide).
1. Find out if your activity requires authorisation
Read the relevant chapter in our CAR Practical Guide to discover whether or not your activity is subject to regulation:
- If your activity falls under a General Binding Rule (GBR), you will not have to do anything, other than comply with the rules of the GBR
- If your activity meets the criteria as described in our Practical Guide, you can apply for a registration online.
- If your activity meets the criteria as described in our Practical Guide, you must apply for a licence by post. Our CAR Licence Applicant Guidance provides guidance and information on the licence application process
2. Determine the cost of your application
Our charging scheme guidance will advise on the estimated cost the application and whether a subsistence (annual) fee applies – enter the details of your activity into our charge calculator to determine your fee (please note that multiple activities are eligible for a reduced application fee, which the calculator determines).
Some abstractions may be eligible for a temporary exemption.
A full list of all activities that do not require a charge can be found in Annex II of our charging scheme guidance.
3. Complete your application form before returning it to us by post or online
We have 30 days to assess an application for registration and four months for a licence.
During this time, we can ask for more information from the applicant, request that they advertise their proposals publicly or make provision for public consultation and feedback. If this is necessary, the response time period is paused.
If your abstraction activity is noted in the table below, it is suitable for online registration:
Inland waters and groundwater
Abstractions of more than 10m3 per day and less than or equal to 50m3 per day
Coastal waters and estuaries
Abstractions of more than 10m3 per day
Abstractions of less than 10m3 per day do not require an application for authorisation, as they should be carried out in accordance with a general binding rule (GBR2) – section 4.3 of our CAR Practical Guide contains more information.
Alternatively, you can complete our abstractions registration form and return it to us by post to the SEPA Registry most closely located to the activity you are registering. Registry addresses are detailed on the form.
Making a change to an existing registration
If you wish to vary or revoke an existing CAR registration please print off our form [doc 8] and return it to us by post to the SEPA Registry most closely located to the activity you are registering. Registry addresses are detailed on the form.
You will need to send a postal application if you require either a simple or a complex licence.
The consolidated CAR Licence Applicant Guidance provides all available guidance and information on the application process.
You need to complete two application forms:
- A universal application form which asks for general information about your activity or activities – our guidance will provide you with help and advice on completing the form
- A specific application for abstraction and impoundment activities which provides us with more detailed information about your activity or activities – our guidance will provide you with help and advice on completing the form
Please print off the forms and return them to us by post to the SEPA Registry most closely located to the activity you are registering. Registry addresses are detailed on the form.
Making a change to an existing licence
- Make an administrative or technical variation – you can make amendments to existing applications
- Transfer it – you can partially or fully transfer your authorisation to another responsible person
- Surrender it – you can surrender a licence and stop paying subsistence charges
Most abstraction licences require the operator to submit data returns.
These show the water that you have abstracted (on a daily basis) over the past year. This information is used by us in two ways. It shows whether licence conditions have been met and allows an assessment of the effect of abstractions on the water environment to be carried out.
Even if no water has been abstracted for any period, this information must still be reported to us as a nil return.
This enables better decision making about the availability of water resources in Scotland.
Further information, including the date by when you are required to submit this data, can be found in your abstraction licence.
You can submit your data to us in a number of ways but we do prefer submissions to be made by email, where possible.
The options for submitting the data return form to us are:
- by email preferably using our Data Returns form (Excel) to WRDataReturns@sepa.org.uk
- by post, using our Data Returns form to be returned to the address given in the supplementary information accompanying your licence
If you have any questions regarding any aspect of compliance with your licence conditions, please contact us.
Abstractions which meet the definition of ‘environmental service’ are exempt from charges. This applies in very specific cases.
If you wish to register an activity that qualifies as an environmental service, you cannot register online – you must submit a paper application, accompanied by information supporting your claim for environmental service.
If you believe your activity qualifies as environmental service or if you require any further information, you should contact us to discuss your activity before proceeding.
Temporary suspension of all abstractions in your licence
If you hold an abstraction licence, but do not intend to abstract any water during the calendar year, you can apply to us for a temporary exemption from your subsistence charge for the current financial year.
The exemption applies to an abstraction for any purpose, but will be especially relevant to farmers who decide not to grow certain crops that require irrigation in a particular year.
To qualify, you must apply to us between 1 December and 28 February, the relevant guidance and application form are available on the application forms webpage.
The following conditions apply:
- Once the notification is made to SEPA, it cannot be reversed. For example, it does not provide the flexibility for farmers to change their mind over what crops they will be growing or whether to irrigate or not.
- You will automatically be charged a subsistence fee unless you write to us within the period stated above.
Any attempt to falsely claim an exemption may constitute an offence and we may, therefore, be forced to take action against you, including a report to the Procurator Fiscal.
Since groundwater naturally discharges into surface waters and wetlands, groundwater abstractions can have a detrimental effect on other water features.
Before applying for an authorisation for an abstraction, you should study the following policy guidance relating to groundwater and abstractions:
- WAT-RM-11 Licensing Groundwater Abstractions including Dewatering
- WAT-RM-16: Hydrogeologist input to groundwater abstraction assessment
- Groundwater protection policy for Scotland V3, November 2009
- An applicant’s guide to water supply boreholes
- Decommissioning redundant boreholes and wells
- Derivation of a methodology for groundwater recharge assessment in Scotland and Northern Ireland
- Hydrometric determinations: Pumping tests for water wells - considerations and guidelines for design, performance and use
- Keeping it Safe: Is your private water supply safe? (2002) Scottish Executive
- WAT-SG-84: Using Disinfectants in Water Wells and Boreholes
- WAT-FORM-10: Water Features Survey Identification Form
- CAR Licences for Deep Boreholes - Information Requirements
- SEPA’s requirements for activities related to geothermal energy
Operators are expected to uphold the conditions of their registration or licence and we have powers to withdraw your authorisation if you fail to meet its conditions.
Licences authorised under CAR are regulated by our compliance assessment scheme.
Even after an authorisation has been granted, we can, if necessary, move activities between registration and licences, or from GBR to registration or licences in order to protect the water environment.
If you do not agree with the conditions and requirements imposed by a CAR authorisation or notice, you can make an appeal directly to the Scottish Government. The submission of an appeal does not suspend the operations of all authorisations or notices and its conditions.
If you require any further help or advice at any stage during the application process, please contact us.