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Can We Sustain Fresh Water Abstraction?

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Research by the University of Worcester and Environment Agency is investigating whether England and Wales can continue to maintain its current level of fresh water abstraction for homes, agriculture and businesses.

In the 1960s abstraction licensing was put in place to regulate water abstraction from rivers, streams and groundwaters. There is now a growing concern that owing to current and potential future changes in water availability, some licensed abstractions might no longer remain sustainable.

Megan Klaar, Hydroecology researcher, funded by the University of Worcester and the Environment Agency, said: “When the licensing abstraction was put in place in the 1960s water availability was less of an issue but over time this surplus has decreased.

“The research we are undertaking is very important in helping to inform the future direction the English and Welsh Governments should take on reforms to licensing and the management of water abstraction.

“Some rivers are more sensitive to water abstraction than others, which can mean increased river pollution because of shortages in water supply and damage to fisheries and wildlife habitats as well as the loss of rivers and streams.”

Dr Ian Maddock, lecturer at the University of Worcester and expert in hydroecology, added: “As part of the research we are assessing the geology and shape of river beds to see how they respond to future changes in the environment and unsustainable abstraction.”

The current system of abstraction licensing is not flexible enough to respond to future pressures such as climate change and population growth. Abstraction charges do not reflect water availability or encourage efficient use of water and the system creates barriers to the efficient sharing of water

Dr Maddock continues: “Any reform of abstraction licensing will look to take a fairer and more sustainable approach, for both the environment and the abstractor. The sensitivity of each river will be an important factor in helping to inform this.”

The research will be completed by March 2014 and will help the Environment Agency to make a scientifically informed decision in determining how much water should be protected from abstraction to ensure that the plants, animals and environments which rely on river and groundwater are not damaged.