Abstraction and impoundment licensing requirements


Our surface water, coastal water and groundwater systems are valuable assets. The Water Abstraction and Impoundment (Licensing) Regulations (Northern Ireland 2006, as amended by The Water Abstraction and Impoundment (Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007, help to support the management and protection of our water ecosystems.

How are abstractions and impoundments regulated?

Rivers, lakes and wetlands are key features of the landscape, which support diverse and internationally important habitats of plant and animal life. In order to protect plants, animals and to manage the use of this resource, the licensing of abstractions (taking water from a water source) and impoundments (a pool of water formed by a dam or pit to supply water for livestock or wildlife, and to control gully erosion) is necessary.

The Water Framework Directive places controls over water abstractions and impoundments to make sure the directive’s objectives for water bodies are met.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency monitors and controls abstraction and impoundment of water in Northern Ireland through the licensing Regulations. 

Sectors affected by the regulations

 A number of sectors are affected by the requirements of the Regulations.

Consumption sectors

Northern Ireland Water Ltd (NIW) is responsible for supplying the public with clean drinkable water. To achieve this NIW uses 90 percent of all water abstracted in Northern Ireland.

As a result of the huge volumes of water involved, these activities are subject to abstraction licences. The control measures required for the award of a licence will play an important factor in achieving, 'Good' ecological status for all water bodies in Northern Ireland.

Commercial and industrial

Industry can be heavily reliant on water for their processes. This is very important within the textiles industry, (for example: scouring, dyeing and wet finishing processes) which uses significant volumes of water often abstracted from lakes or rivers. Over half of these industrial and commercial firms may need a licence under the regulations.


There are over 27,000 farms in Northern Ireland. Dairy farms, of which there are over 4,000, can be users of abstracted water. As agriculture is highly dependent on the seasons, spray irrigation occurs in the summer months, to ensure optimum crop growth.

Plant nurseries

There are approximately 50 nurseries in Northern Ireland and many abstract water - the amount being determined by the size and operation of the nursery.

Food and drink

The manufacturing of food and drink products uses a considerable amount of water (often abstracted groundwater) for both cleaning and as a part of the final product. Licences help control and protect the groundwater sources.

Public bodies

Some public bodies will also be affected by the regulations. These include hospitals, health trusts, schools and local council premises.

Recreation facilities

There are 30 recreational facilities and approximately 150 golf clubs in Northern Ireland, many of which abstract water. They, too, may need an abstraction licence.

Fish farms and hatcheries

The majority of fish farms and hatcheries in Northern Ireland, require over 100 cubic metres per day of (mainly) abstracted river water. These businesses may need an abstraction licence.


Renewable energy has become more popular as the government strives to reduce carbon emissions and becomes less reliant on fossil fuels.

There are currently approximately 90 small hydroelectric sites in Northern Ireland using over 100 cubic metres per day of water. All of these schemes require abstraction licences.

Electricity companies

Northern Ireland Electricity's power plants are very reliant on the abstraction of water for cooling in the production process. Within Northern Ireland there are three power stations: Ballylumford, Kilroot and Coolkeeragh. All of these power stations abstract large volumes of water and require an abstraction licence.

Quarrying and mining

Many quarrying and mining companies in Northern Ireland abstract large amounts of water and may need a licence.

Other industry

Other Northern Ireland industries that abstract over 10 cubic metres per day of surface, coastal or groundwater will be required to notify the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). Abstractions of over 20 cubic metres per day will need a licence.

Effects of abstraction and impoundment

The effects of abstracting will vary depending on:-

  • volume being abstracted
  • sensitivity of the ecosystem
  • seasonality
  • volumes returned
  • distances between abstraction and discharge points

From an environmental perspective over-abstraction of a water body may lead to:-

  • reduced water flow
  • reduction of water resources
  • stress or mortality of fish and/or invertebrates
  • increased risk of pollution through reduced dilution
  • damage to our landscapes

The effect of an impoundment on a water body will vary depending on:-

  • size
  • design
  • operation and control
  • the sensitivity of the location

A poorly designed or managed impoundment can:-

  • impede the movement of migratory fish
  • be unsafe if accessible by the public
  • cause build up of sediment leading to changes to the river bed habitat
  • lead to changes in the natural morphology of the river


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