Water regulations for farmers
Water regulations are in place to protect ground and surface waters. The information below will help your business stay on the right side of the law.
Legislation exists to protect surface and groundwater, which affects how land and farm businesses are managed. It also sets standards for the construction of farm facilities and the use of fertilisers, chemicals and manures. You therefore need to consider your water use and how to prevent water pollution.
Below we have rounded up the latest information from Defra, the Environment Agency and other organisations.
Farming rules for water
Water regulation podcasts
Click the links below to listen to these AHDB podcast episodes:
Extracting and storing water
Boreholes and abstracted water
Many farms have their own water supply as a cost-effective alternative to the mains supply. Taking water from a surface or underground source is called abstraction. If you plan to take more than 20 cubic metres (20,000 litres) a day, you are likely to need an abstraction licence from the Environment Agency. The government has guidance on whether you need a license, and how to apply.
The rules around abstraction have been undergoing a process of review and modernisation. There was an update to the charges for abstraction implemented from 1 April 2022. The government also aimed to bring abstraction licenses under the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) in 2023, though this may have been delayed.
For more information, see the government's advice on managing water abstraction in England. Suggested sections are: 3.1 Addressing unsustainable abstraction; 3.3 Modernising regulation; 4.3 Abstraction licensing strategies (ALS).
Water byelaws and potable drinking water
Water byelaws control how water is stored and distributed on farms. They apply to all users of public water supplies. Livestock farms fall into the highest risk category for potential contamination.
The Water Regulations Approval Scheme (WRAS) has produced a guide to regulations when installing, modifying or maintaining plumbing installations: Water Regulations Water Supply Industry Installation Guide
Avoiding water pollution
Drinking Water Safeguard Zones
These zones are catchment areas that have been identified when a protected area has been identified as ‘at risk’. Consult the maps of these zones when considering new buildings or outdoor production sites. View the Environment Agency map of the zones.
These have been established as part of the Water Framework Directive. There are also groundwater Source Protection Zones (see below).
Groundwater Source Protection Zones
Groundwater Source Protection Zones (SPZs) are zones which show the level of risk to a groundwater source from contamination. Sources include wells, boreholes and springs.
They are split into three risk categories: inner, outer, and whole catchment. These are based on the time taken for water, and any pollutants within it, to reach drinking water abstraction points.
Find out more from the government website, including when you need to find out if you’re in an SPZ, a link to a map of SPZs, and technical guidance. There are also drinking water safeguard zones, see above.
Catchment Sensitive Farming
Catchment sensitive farming (CSF) is a scheme run by Natural England in partnership with the Environment Agency and Defra.
CSF gives advice to farmers in England to improve the environmental performance of farms. Visit Catchment Sensitive Farming on GOV.UK for more information, including free advice and training to reduce diffuse water pollution from farming and to claim grants under the Capital Grant Scheme.
The Nitrate Pollution Prevention Regulations (2015) set the safe limit for nitrates in surface and groundwaters as 50 mg/l. Surface and groundwaters in England and Wales are monitored and nitrate levels are recorded.
Approximately 70% of agricultural land in England is designated as a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ). Where nitrates are found to be consistently above the set limit and this is attributed to agriculture, an action programme is required to reduce these levels. The action programme must be revised every four years, therefore the rules change frequently.
Rules farmers and landowners must follow if their land is in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ).
Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil
If you run a farm in England that stores silage, slurry or agricultural fuel oil, you will need to follow the Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil (England) (SSAFO) Regulations.
These regulations are intended to minimise the risks of pollution by setting out standards for the design and construction of storage facilities on farms in England and Wales. They apply to all slurry stores and reception pits. In England, it is a legal requirement to pre-notify the Environment Agency 14 days before starting work on any new slurry store.
Find more about soil erosion and runoff on the South West Agricultural Resource Management website.
Ten tips for reducing environmental risks from outdoor pig production
The Environment Agency have produced a list of tips to help pig producers protect water quality.
To report a pollution incident call the Environment Agency's 24hr hotline:
0800 80 70 60
Disposal of pesticides and disinfectants
There are regulations to protect groundwater. It is no longer permitted to dispose of tank washings containing pesticide residues to discard areas. Washings may only be applied to an untreated part of the crop.
Further information can be found on the Voluntary Initiative website.
Owning land by watercourses
If you have property or land adjacent to a river or other watercourse, you have several responsibilities: see owning a watercourse on GOV.UK. If you plan to carry out work on land adjacent to a watercourse, plans must be submitted to the Environment Agency and the local authority before starting.
Links to further guidance
Further links, including for the regulations in the devolved nations, can be found on page 4 of the Nutrient Management Guide (RB209) section 2.