There has been a slight increase in unsustainable abstraction from surface water bodies, according to the Environment Agency's (EA) progress report on abstraction reform.
The report, published yesterday, is a statutory requirement under the Water Act 2014 and sets out the Environment Agency’s actions over the period 2014 to 2019.
While the agency has made some progress on water flows - 84% of surface water bodies now support the required flow standards, up from 82% in 2017 - the proportion of unsustainably abstracted water bodies increased from 8% in 2017 to 9% in 2019. The target is to have 6% in this category by 2021.
The proportion of “potentially unsustainably abstracted” water bodies has dropped from 10% to 7%, with a 2021 target of 4%.
The agency said the figures include “both outcomes of actions taken and revision of some previous assessments based on better information” and that it expects there will be ecological improvement in some water bodies when the next set of water body classification result are published in 2022.
The EA has started to “scope new work, in collaboration with abstractors and environmental groups, to improve its understanding of the environmental impacts of abstraction at a local scale,'' the report states. “This will become increasingly important as the margin between water availability and acceptable levels of abstraction becomes tighter with climate change and growth,” it adds.
Since 2018, the EA has been working with four “priority catchments” - East Suffolk in East Anglia, Cam & Ely Ouse in East Anglia, South Forty Foot in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and Idle & Torne in the East Midlands - where there is unmet demand for water. It says project coordinators are now place and stakeholder catchment groups have been formed, comprising farmers, water companies, internal drainage boards, rivers trusts, environmental groups, local authorities and umbrella organisations such as the National Farmers Union.
“Developing a shared vision for each catchment and building relationships between stakeholders is now underway but establishing successful catchment groups will take time,” it says.
The report also adds three new priority catchments to the list: the Wye catchment in Herefordshire, the Otter catchment in Devon and the Arun and Western Streams in West Sussex. The EA’s target is to update 10 abstraction licensing strategies by 2021 and all remaining strategies by 2027.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are committed to reforming water abstraction licencing. Since 2008 we’ve made changes to over 270 abstraction licences, ensuring that there is sufficient water for people while preventing over 30 billion litres of water per year being removed from the environment.”