[UK Water Abstraction Case]

Date: 6 September 2022




Royal Courts of Justice

The claimants, Angelika and Timothy Harris, live in the Norfolk Broads. They are concerned that water abstraction is causing irremediable damage to the environment, including ecosystems that are legally protected. Their intervention was instrumental in the decision of the defendant, the Environment Agency, not to renew two abstraction licences. The claimants believe that the Environment Agency ought to review more broadly the impact of water abstraction to decide whether other licences should also be withdrawn or altered. They challenge, by judicial review, the Environment Agency’s refusal to expand the scope of an investigation that it conducted into the effect of 240 licences for abstraction. That investigation concerned the effect of abstraction on just three Sites of Special Scientific Interest (“the three SSSIs”).

The claimants’ case is that:


the Environment Agency is in breach of an obligation under article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) (“the Habitats Directive”) to avoid the deterioration of protected habitats and disturbance of protected species.


The obligation under article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive has effect in domestic law by reason of regulation 9(3) of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (“the Habitats Regulations”) which requires the Environment Agency to “have regard” to the Habitats Directive.


Irrespective of the effect of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations, article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive is enforceable by the domestic courts.


The Environment Agency’s decision not to conduct a more expansive investigation into the impact of licenced water abstraction is irrational.

The Environment Agency accepts that it must have regard to article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive. It maintains that it has done so and that it has, after taking it into account, reasonably decided to limit its investigation of the impact of the 240 licences to the three SSSIs. It disputes that article 6(2) has direct effect in domestic law beyond the obligation to “have regard” to it. In any event, it maintains that it is acting compatibly with the requirements of article 6(2).

[The Claimants] have been concerned for many years about the condition of fenland in the area where they live and own land. They are particularly concerned about the impact of the abstraction of groundwater for agricultural and other purposes.

Habitats Regulations require […] a precautionary approach and to take action to reduce abstraction where there was a risk that abstraction might cause such adverse effects.

Landelijke Vereniging tot Behoud van de Waddenzee v Staatssecretaris van Landbouw, Natuurbeheer en Visserij (Case C-127/02) [2005] 2 CMLR 31

The Habitats Directive must be interpreted in accordance with the precautionary principle

Anticipatory measures are required to prevent deterioration before it occurs: Case C-418/04 Commission v Ireland [2007] ECR I-10997 at [207]-[208]

Where it appears that there is a risk of deterioration of a protected habitat, article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive requires that “appropriate steps” are taken to avoid that deterioration: Case C-399/14 Grüne Liga Sachsen eV v Freistaat Sachsen EU:C:2016:10 [2016]

This means that where it becomes apparent that there may be a risk to a protected habitat or species as a result of the licenced abstraction of water, article 6(2) imposes an obligation to review the applicable licences: Grüne Liga at [44]. The review must be sufficiently robust to guarantee that the abstraction of water will not cause significant damage to ecosystems that are protected under the Habitats Directive: Grüne Liga at [53].

The claimants’ case is that the Environment Agency acted unlawfully by limiting its investigation to the three SSSIs. They say that once it decided to review the 240 abstraction licences, it was required to consider their impact across the entirety of the SAC. Further, once the Environment Agency was aware of potential risks to other sites, it was obliged to address those potential risks.

Water abstraction involves the taking of water from the underlying aquifers and thereby potentially reduces the through-flow of base-rich water which is a key characteristic of the SAC. It also potentially changes the ground chemistry, impacting on surface ecology.

There is therefore the clear potential for water abstraction to cause damage to wetland ecosystems.

The Environment Agency has a broad discretion as to the steps that should be taken to achieve that end. The cost of different options is a relevant factor that can legitimately be considered. A court will be slow to question the Environment Agency’s expert assessment as to the steps that should be taken. It is, however, not open to the Environment Agency to take no steps – that is a breach of article 6(2).

The Environment Agency must act unless it is satisfied that there is no risk of significant damage.

Environment Agency cannot absolve itself from compliance with article 6 by pointing to work done by other public authorities.

Although it has taken account of article 6, it has not justified its failure to take steps in respect of the risks (particularly risks posed by abstraction in accordance with permanent licences), and it is therefore in breach of its obligation under regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations. The claimed lack of resource does not justify these breaches.

The Environment Agency has not undertaken any sufficient analysis of the steps needed to address the impact of abstraction in accordance with permanent licences.

The Environment Agency must (by reason of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations) have regard to the requirements of article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive. It must therefore be in a position to justify any departure from those requirements.

It follows that the Environment Agency must take appropriate steps to ensure that, in the SAC, there is no possibility of the deterioration of protected habitats or the significant disturbance of protected species as a result of licensed water abstraction. The Environment Agency has discharged that obligation in respect of three sites of special scientific interest. But it has not done so in respect of all sites within the SAC. That is because its review of abstraction licences was flawed and (at least in relation to permanent licences) it has not conducted a sufficient further review to address those flaws. It is therefore in breach of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations and article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive.

Moving to more sustainable methods of slurry application: implications for water quality of waterbodies and water protected areas

This report is a quick scoping review (QSR) of peer reviewed and grey literature to provide an evidence-based comparison of different low emission slurry spreading (LESS) approaches in terms of farming practice, ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions and risk of water pollution from slurry spreading to inform farmer-focused guidance on LESS. The work is focused on slurry-borne contaminants that are relevant to the water quality objectives under the river basin management plans (RBMP) set by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), such as nitrate, phosphorus and faecal indicator organisms (FIO).

The key question addressed by the project is ‘What are the effects of low emission slurry spreading (LESS) approaches on water quality?

This QSR showed that the key factors influencing the impact of LESS approaches on losses of slurry-borne pollutants to water are precipitation, soil moisture, soil permeability and drainage, and presence of vegetation, be it crop, grass or vegetated buffer strips. The role of these factors has already been captured in the current regulatory framework, stipulating specific obligations for farmers under GBR18 and The Action Programme for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (Scotland) Regulations 2008. The already existing guidance is still valid to protect water quality.  However, the choice of LESS approach should be determined by environmental designations and account for the most vulnerable environmental component (soil/atmosphere/ waterbodies) of the agro-ecosystem. Guidance to farmers should also consider a compromise between feasibility, cost, and environmental and agronomic objectives.

Bowston weir removal project

South Cumbria Rivers Trust project to remove Bowston weir, on the River Kent at Bowston near Burneside in South Cumbria. It is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

Noteworthy project due to the level of transparency on the project

Floods & Dredging: a reality check

Dredging can play an important role in flood risk management in some cases, but is not a standalone
solution. It should be considered in the context of a range of tools and the origins of different sources of flood water, and comes with significant risks that must be understood at a local and catchment scale.



The term dredging is routinely used to refer to the systematic removal of accumulated material from river or other watercourse channels. In its most extreme form dredging may be used to re-align river channels creating linear, canalised watercourses.

• It would be infeasible to dredge channels with the capacity to carry flood flows of the kind witnessed this winter (2013/14). However, there is significant evidence that dredging can increase channel conveyance, reducing water levels and small floods.
• This is borne out by studies of the Somerset Level and Moors system which suggest that the proposed dredge would have not prevented flooding but could significantly reduce the length of time water stands on the land.
• Numerous studies have pointed to significant unintended consequences of dredging, namely:
o Increasing flood risk for communities downstream by speeding up the movement of flood water through the river and drainage network.
o Destabilising river banks, causing erosion and so risking damage to infrastructure.
o Loss of wildlife and habitats both within the river and across the wider floodplain. These impacts can be significant and permanent.

• It is also important to note that dredging can be a conservation tool, particularly in heavily modified environments where natural processes that maintain ecosystem function are constrained.
• Flood risk management strategies should look to a range of interventions, and include action to reduce runoff by working with natural practices to slow water, and increase infiltration and storage throughout the catchment.
• Strategies will also need to manage the use of naturally flood prone land through a combination of behavioural and engineering options, including flood zoning, warning, changes in land use practices, as well as flood defence structures and operations.
• Land management lies at the heart of these strategies, so the design of farm subsidies and engagement with stakeholders, especially landowners, land managers and farmers is critical to flood risk management. The Catchment Based Approach provides a platform for this engagement.



Water Abstraction Data (UK overview)

Presentation on water abstraction and discharge data (begins at 58mins) and how it impacts on river flows

UK have point data on abstraction – but it’s size of licenced abstraction (not how much water is actually abstracted), if it’s from surface or groundwater abstraction, and what that abstracted water is used for (by sector, eg agricultural irrigation)

The UK data links the catchments to the abstractions

Don’t look at just the data of water taken out, but also need to look at ‘consumption’ – what’s discharged (put back in at same location)

UK data is online and easy to access

Ecosystem Accounting

The SEEA Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) constitutes an integrated and comprehensive statistical framework for organizing data about habitats and landscapes, measuring the ecosystem services, tracking changes in ecosystem assets, and linking this information to economic and other human activity.

The United Nations Statistical Commission adopted the SEEA Ecosystem Accounting at its 52nd session in March 2021. The report of the Commission can be found here.

This adoption follows a comprehensive and inclusive process of detailed testing, consultation and revision. Today, ecosystem accounts have already been used to inform policy development in more than 34 countries.