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Understanding Water Management Regulations in Scotland

27 June 2024

Actions that affect the water environment are regulated by The Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011 (including amendments 2013, 2017 and 2021), known commonly as Controlled Activities Regulations (CAR) including the abstraction of water. Abstraction can be used to ensure water supply on farm, however, there can be times where SEPA have to introduce restrictions on the quantity of water allowed to be removed to safeguard water supply for the surrounding environment. Below we discuss the rules and regulations in place that ensure water is abstracted correctly and appropriately.

CAR applies to activities that include discharges, abstractions, diffuse pollution, works in inland waters, and groundwater. Water sources regulated by CAR include:

  • Coastal and transitional water [1] (e.g. estuaries)
  • Inland water [2] for example: reservoirs, rivers and groundwater
  • Groundwater below coastal and transitional waters
  • Groundwater from construction site
  • Groundwater for geothermal energy
  • Other groundwater
[1] Transitional waters exist in the intersection of freshwater flows and coastal water, such as estuaries.
[2] Inland water includes all standing and flowing water on surface of land including groundwater such as rivers, lochs, reservoirs etc. It excludes transitional waters and groundwater found beneath coastal and transitional waters.

What Activities Fall Under Abstraction?

Abstractions include any temporary or permanent activity that removes or diverts water from any part of the water environment (by mechanical means, pipes, or engineering structures). Even the transfer of water from one part of the environment to another is included if it still requires removal or diversion. In short, if surface water or groundwater is taken from any source, it is known as abstraction. For example: the use of pumps, pipes, boreholes and wells.

The Farm Advisory service have produced two technical notes examining different abstraction point designs to provide alternative water supply for livestock:

  1. TN665: Alternative Watering for Field Grazed Livestock I – Abstraction Systems
  2. TN666: Alternative Watering for Field Grazed Livestock II – Pumping Systems.

What Activities Require Authorisation by SEPA?

Any abstraction of more than 10m3 of water per day that does not fall under General Binding Rules[1] (GBR) must be authorised by SEPA. For specific details, please refer to page 78 of the CAR-A Practical Guide.

There are three levels of authorisation, which correspond to the level of risk of an activity. Activities outside of GBR would require authorisation from SEPA, which can come either as a registration or application for license (simple or complex). The level of authorisation required and associated activities are illustrated in the table below:

[1] GBRs are a set of mandatory rules that govern low risk activities. Relevant rules are highlighted by SEPA for compliance in the proposal stage of the land use planning system. No abstraction application is needed with SEPA if activities fall under GBR only.

Table 1: Levels of authorisation and permitted activities

Level of authorisationDescriptionAssociated abstraction activitiesBorehole construction and operation
GBRThese govern activities with low environmental risk and do not require SEPA to be contacted.·         Abstractions with less than 10m3 of inland water and groundwater. beneath coastal and transitional water per day (GBR2).·         Borehole is equal or less than 200m deep (GBR3).

·         Abstraction of less than 150m3 of water per year for pump testing or water quality sampling purposes (GBR4).
RegistrationThis is required for activities that pose low environmental risk but do not fall under GBR.·         Abstraction between 10m3 and 50m3 of inland water per day.

·         Abstraction of equal or more than 10m3 of groundwater beneath coastal and transitional water per day.

·         Abstraction from all coastal and transitional water that is more than 10m3 per day.
·         Borehole is equal or less than 200m deep.

·         Abstraction of water between 10m3 and 50m3 per day.
Simple LicenseThis governs activities that pose high environmental risk.·         Abstraction between 50m3 and 2000m3 of inland water per day.·         Borehole is more than 200m in depth and temporary (decommissioned within 14 days).
Complex LicenseThis governs activities that pose high environmental risk.·         Abstraction more than 2000m3 of inland water per day.·         Borehole is more than 200m in depth.


For further information, Tables 2-3 in CAR a Practical Guide (page 83) explain the levels of activity and required authorisation. You can also refer to the diagram below to highlight the level of authorisation you may require:

Figure 1: Decision making tree to identify appropriate SEPA authorisation.

Water Abstraction Figure 1

*Refer to Section 4.2 (page 85) of CAR a Practical Guide for further clarification on relevant GBR.

What Activities Do Not Require SEPA Authorisation?

The list of abstraction activities excluded are:

  • Abstraction from public water supply.
  • Construction and operation of borehole with depth equal to or less than 200m and abstract less than 150m3 water per year. Complies with GBR3 and GBR4.
  • Land drainage works that is regulated under GBR.
  • Temporary abstraction to enable work within river (e.g. over pumping of water).
  • Abstraction by vessels where water is returned back from the vessel.
  • Water stored in off-line impoundments[1] that don’t hold back surface water flow.
  • Artificial storage ponds that receive their inflow from an already authorised abstraction.
  • Artificial treatment systems, including Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) and quarry settlement lagoons.
  • Abstraction for firefighting.
  • Abstraction of rainwater from excavation sites or quarries of volcanic or metamorphic rocks (e.g. basalt, granite and schist).
[1] “Off-line” impoundments are water storage facilities that don’t affect downstream water flow, sediment transport or fish migration.

Where Can I Find Out More?

There is a dedicated section on SEPA’s webpage that explains water abstractions here.

If you require a registration or license, speak to SEPA first to understand the information required for your application here. You can download the relevant forms from SEPA’s webpage here and contact for application related queries.

FAS Water Management Page has access to great resource to help protect and manager water supply on farm.

Farming & Water Scotland has a vast array of material and guides to help land managers work with water on their farm.

Farming & Water Scotland with SEPA have produced a podcast discussing water management on farm, looking at the authorisation requirements which land managers need to adhere to:

Arial picture of Waterways within land

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