Spray irrigation: What is a Section 57 restriction?

The Environment Agency (EA) can reduce or stop spray irrigation under Section 57 of the Water Resources Act 1991. This is a last resort restriction in order to protect the environment. This note explains what they cover and how they are used.

The legislation allows “emergency variation of licences for spray irrigation purposes” when there has been an exceptional shortage of rainfall or other emergency.

There is a staged approach in the legislation to limiting water usage in exceptionally dry conditions to protect public water supply and other needs. The restrictions are a last resort, and the EA works with abstractors (not just spray irrigators) to explore the benefit of voluntary restrictions to avoid or delay the use of Section 57 restrictions.

If your licence includes 'hands off flow' conditions, then it is likely these would already be operating before a Section 57 restriction was introduced.

All abstraction licences for spray irrigation within a water catchment can be reduced or stopped. Groundwater can only be restricted if abstraction is likely to affect the flow, level or volume of an inland water such as a river or stream. Where there is more than one abstractor from the same source of supply, the EA must treat all licence holders equally.


Environmental conditions, such as water levels and flow, water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and signs of environmental stress can all be triggers.

There may also be local reasons to trigger a restriction, for example where public water supply is threatened and drought orders or permits are in place.

How you will be notified

These should not come as a surprise as the EA should already be working with you, perhaps through your abstractor group, on a voluntary basis to reduce your water use and avoid restrictions.

The EA should serve notice by email and letter at least two weeks before you have to stop or reduce your abstraction.

Restrictions may be phased-in, starting at a mandatory 50% reduction, increasing to 75% then 100% if conditions don't improve.


The following abstractors would be excluded:

  • Trickle irrigation;
  • Irrigation using water collected in winter storage reservoirs;
  • Water used to supply pot grown plants which are unable to take moisture from the soil;
  • Irrigation of crops in glasshouses or polytunnels;
  • If your licence allows you to spray irrigate and use water for another purpose, such as vegetable washing, the Section 57 restriction would only apply to your spray irrigation abstraction.

Further information

Contact the Environment Agency on 03708 506506 or 
enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk to be put in touch with your local area team to discuss the restrictions.