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Farming: Water and watercourses

The information below highlights a number of key issues of relevance to farmers and land managers regarding the use, management and protection of water and water courses:

More detailed information covering water quality, marine issues, flood management, water resources, water industry and water conservation can be found within the environmental protection section of the Defra website.

The Environment Agency is responsible for managing water resources and enforcing quality standards and provide further guidance specific to the farming sector.


Increasing water efficiency makes good business sense, saving money and improving profits while also benefiting the environment.

The Environment Agency’s guide Waterwise on the farm explains how you can build an action plan to help make the best use of water resources, including how to reduce the quantity of dirty water requiring treatment and disposal.

Under the Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations 1999 you must also ensure that water from sources other than the mains is NOT connected to pipes, fittings or equipment which have a mains connection. 


Diffuse water pollution – including phosphorous, nitrogen, silt and other materials from farms – is a significant problem and a number of initiatives and guidelines exist to help reduce the impact on water quality. These include:

  • Catchment Sensitive Farming
  • Nitrate Vulnerable Zones
  • best practice guidelines
  • Farm waste management planning

Information regarding farm waste management planning is contained in section three of the Code of Good Agricultural Practice for Water (1998). The code should be read in conjunction with an Addendum to the Water Code, which was published in 2002.

Catchment Sensitive Farming

The Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) programme aims to develop measures to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture (DWPA) to meet Water Framework Directive requirements. A consultation was launched on 21 August 2007 on three possible policy packages available for implementing these measures.

The Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) programme takes forward the government’s stategic review of diffuse water pollution from agriculture (DWPA). The England Catchment Sensitive Farming Delivery Initiative aims to promote voluntary action by farmers in 40 priority catchments to tackle the problem of DWPA.

Full details can be found in the initative's State Aid application.

During 2007 Defra funded a £5 million Capital Grants Scheme to support land managers in priority catchments in England, which provided a range of opportunities to install facilities that benefited water quality by reducing diffuse pollution.

The Capital Grant Scheme is now closed to new applicants.

Nitrates and Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs)

To help limit and reduce the amount of water pollution caused by losses of nitrate from agriculture, farmers must comply with an Action Programme of measures in areas designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs).

Details of these measures and how you can comply are contained in Guidelines for farmers in NVZs and in Manure planning in NVZs.

Further information can be found in the Nitrates - reducing water pollution from agriculture section. The Government has recently completed its review of the extent of the NVZs and the effectiveness of the Action Programme.  A consultation was launched on 21 August to seek views on:

  • whether to apply the Action Programme measures within NVZs (which will be increased to about 70% of England) or throughout the whole of the country
  • proposals to tighten some of the Action Programme measures to improve their effectiveness

Read about the higher Nitrogen limit for application of livestock manure.

Nutrient management

Further advice on fertiliser management and voluntary initiatives to reduce nutrient pollution from agriculture can be found within the nutrient management and fertilisers pages of the land management section.

Best practice guidelines

A number of industry associations including the Agricultural Industries Confederation (formerly the Fertiliser Manufacturers’ Association) and the Crop Protection Association have produced guidelines to help reduce water pollution, including:


Water lying below the water table or in aquifers, wells and boreholes, is protected from contamination by the Groundwater Regulations (1998).

The regulations control both direct and indirect discharges to groundwater, including through pipes, boreholes or percolation through the soil.

The Environment Agency has the power to serve a prevention notice on farmers whose activities threaten to pollute groundwater.

Anyone who disposes of listed substances or materials containing those substances must apply to the agency for authorisation.

For further details on the listed substances, and for advice on meeting the groundwater regulations visit the Groundwater section of Environment Agency's NetRegs website.

With regard to sheep dip, a List 1 substance, farmers’ responsibilities are explained in a special Groundwater Protection Code for the Disposal of Sheep Dip Compounds.


Anyone intending to abstract water from inland and tidal waters in England and Wales must obtain a licence from the Environment Agency.

For agricultural purposes, a licence is needed if water is abstracted from groundwater - wells and boreholes - regardless of the volume.

With the exception of spray irrigation use, a licence is not required if you intend to abstract less than 20m3 per day from surface water – streams, rivers and canals.

For more information on abstraction licensing please email or call us on 08708 506506.

The Environment Agency controls irrigation abstractions by:

  • specifying conditions written into licences
  • voluntary agreements to reduce extraction
  • compulsory restrictions limiting or banning abstraction

An Irrigation water assessment and management plan is available from Defra publications (Tel: 08459 556000) to help you assess current irrigation practice and make efficient use of water.

Further information is available on the abstraction section of the Environment Agency website.


Information on current flood warnings, updated every 15 minutes, is available on the Environment Agency website.

If you are concerned about flooding you should phone the Environment Agency Floodline number 0845 988 1188.

Farmers and landowners with property or land adjacent to a river or other watercourse have a number of responsibilities including:

  • maintaining the bed and banks of the watercourse
  • clearing any debris, natural or otherwise even if it did not originate from your land
  • not causing any obstructions to the free passage of fish
  • keeping the bed and banks clear of any matter that could cause an obstruction, either on your land or by being washed away by high flow to obstruct a structure downstream
  • keeping clear any structures that you own such as culverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates

The maintenance of any flood defences, such as walls and embankments on your property, should be discussed with the Environment Agency.

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.
Agency officials have statutory powers of entry facilitating access to this land to carry out various activities, including flood defence works.

A comprehensive guide to the rights and responsibilities of riverside owners is available on the EA’s website.



Further information

  • Defra helpline – 08459 33 55 77
  • Environment Agency (enquiries) – 08708 506 506
  • Environment Agency (Floodline) – 0845 988 1188
  • Agricultural Industries Confederation – 01733 385230
  • Crop Protection Association – 01733 367213

Page last modified: 28 Setember 2009
Page published: 1 July 2006