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Water resource authorisations and data returns

Water resource authorisations

We are now able to accept pre-application proposals, new applications, variations, transfers and surrenders covering abstractionsimpoundments and hydro schemes.

We would strongly encourage pre-application enquiries prior to submitting applications.

What should you do now?

Email application forms along with supporting information to

Email pre-application proposal and supporting information to

Submit enquiries about General Binding Rules, existing authorised sites and maintenance via our online form: Contact us

Data returns

We are now actively reviewing many of the data returns and kindly request you to submit any outstanding returns for Water resources abstractions. Please submit any outstanding returns to as soon as possible.


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?

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).

Do the regulations apply to me?

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).

What do I need to do?

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 either electronically or 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. 

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.

Apply for a registration or licence online or by post


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 either by email or post to the SEPA Registry addresses detailed on the form.

Making a change to an existing registration

If you wish to vary or revoke an existing CAR registration please complete our form [doc 8] and return it to us by post to the SEPA Registry address detailed on the form.


You will need to send an application either bu email or post 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:

Making a change to an existing licence

Data returns for abstraction licences

Most abstraction licences require the operator to submit data returns and further information can be found in your abstraction licence.

Generally the deadlines for submitting data returns are shown below but there are exceptions so please refer to your licence as failure to return by your deadline will affect your licence compliance?

Agricultural Irrigation Abstraction Returns

31 December 2023

Others/Non Agricultural Irrigation Abstraction Returns

31 January 2024

Your data shows 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.

Electronic form

If you have any questions regarding any aspect of compliance with your licence conditions, please contact us.

If you have questions regarding completing a data return, please contact the data returns team

Exemptions and temporary exemptions

Environmental service

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 an application either by email or post, accompanied by information supporting your claim for environmental service, as detailed in our charging scheme.

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:

Compliance with regulations

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.

Help, advice and more information

If you require any further help or advice at any stage during the application process, please contact us.