Water Resources Priority Catchments

Closed 31 Dec 2021

Opened 31 Jan 2020


We have created this page to provide easy access to information on priority catchments. We will be updating this site as the catchment projects and trials progress so please keep checking back for what’s new.

Update to content: September 2021: 

First four priority catchment Abstraction Licensing Strategies are published.

(see links in 'Related' section at the bottom of this page)


The Environment Agency/Defra Water Abstraction Plan was published in 2017 and set out how we will reform and modernise the way we manage abstraction. A key element of this was setting out the ambition for 10 priority catchments.

Priority catchments are for developing and testing innovative solutions to achieve greater access to water and address unsustainable abstraction. We have chosen catchments where:

  • there is unmet demand for water and/or there are concerns that abstraction is damaging the ecology
  • there is potential for water to be shared amongst abstractors
  • there are a number of abstractors who we can work with to trial new and innovative ways of managing water abstraction. 

In these priority catchments we intend to promote a catchment based approach. The direction and output of each priority catchment will be overseen by a catchment group including abstractors and other partners.  Collaborative working across a range of stakeholders should mean that solutions deliver multiple benefits.

Following publication of Abstraction Plan, we announced the first 4 Phase 1 catchments in May 2018 to trial new approaches to improve access to water and improve the environment. Using the catchment based approach we are bringing abstractors and other stakeholders together to reach consensus on water resources issues and develop innovative approaches together. The additional six, Phase 2 catchments were then launched in 2019.

Where are the priority catchments and what is happening?

Priority catchments mapBlue catchments are Phase 1, purple catchments are Phase 2

More information

Photo showing the view of Fens and Bicker windfarm from the top of Swaton Catchment, South Forty Foot
The view of Fens and Bicker windfarm from the top of Swaton Catchment, South Forty Foot
The South Forty Foot catchment is situated between Sleaford, Boston, Spalding and Bourne in South Lincolnshire. High quality soils are found in the area which is dominated by agricultural activities. The Lincolnshire Limestone rock formation shapes the surface to the west and is an important aquifer for public water supplies, dipping below the ground as you move east. There is a vital pumped drainage network managed by the Black Sluice Internal Drainage Board interweaved with other watercourses overseen by the Environment Agency. The large South Forty Foot Drain dominates the catchment before discharging into the Witham Haven at The Black Sluice in Boston. The South Lincolnshire Water Partnership is working hard in the area to develop integrated, multi-sector, water management options.
Photo showing a suction dredger in South Forty Foot catchment
A suction dredger in South Forty Foot catchment
For more information about South Forty Foot catchment, please contact enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.

More Information

A photo of a river in Gipping Sproughton, East Suffolk catchmentGipping Sproughton, East Suffolk catchment
East Suffolk is a low lying area on the North Sea coast. It is dominated by agriculture and characterised by low rainfall. This drives a high demand for water, which cannot be met by our aquifers or surface waterbodies. Stakeholders are working together to find new ideas on how to make best use of available water once environmental requirements are met. We are looking at new approaches to licensing, water storage and improving the resilience of the environment to abstraction.
The East Suffolk catchment covers an area of 1364 km2 including the natural surface water catchments of the Rivers Lothingland, Wang, Blyth, Yox, Fromus, Alde, Ore, Deben, Lark and Fynn, and the Gipping and Belstead Brook which together drain into the Orwell estuary. These catchments drain the areas of Beccles, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Framlingham, Aldeburgh, Wickham Market, Stowmarket and Ipswich into the North Sea.
For more information about East Suffolk catchment, please contact enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.

More Information

The River Wye curving through Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley which is designated for conservation due to its significant landscape value as an area of outstanding natural beautyThe River Wye curving through Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley which is designated for conservation due to its significant landscape value as an area of outstanding natural beauty
The River Wye is a cross border catchment spanning both England and Wales. It is a designated SAC and Site of Special Scientific Interest and as a result requires more stringent flow protection. There are concerns about water availability at low flows and for consumptive abstraction water may only be available at medium to high flows. Public water supply accounts for the majority of abstraction followed by agriculture. There is a large active Catchment Partnership already working in the catchment across a number of projects trying to improve the ecological condition of the catchment and its overall sustainability.
For more information on Wye catchment, please contact Michelle Morris.

More Information

A photo showing a river in the Idle and Torne catchmentThe Idle and Torne catchment
The catchment of the Idle and Torne rivers covers an area approximately 1,200km2. Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire are principle counties. However Derbyshire and North Lincolnshire cover areas to the south west and north east of the catchment. The Idle drains a catchment area of approximately 879km2 and the Torne an area of approximately 328km2.
The Idle and Torne catchment is predominantly moderate lowland catchment. Much of the northern end of the catchment is drained by pumps and high level carriers. Here the land is at or below sea level. Most of the higher areas are undulating in nature, but with no great inclines. Most watercourse flow north eastwards.
For more information on Idle and Torne catchment, please contact enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.

More Information

Photo of a river in Lark, in Cam and Ely Ouse catchmentLark, Cam and Ely Ouse catchment
The Cam and Ely Ouse (CamEO) priority catchment comprises an area of 3,664 km2 covering six counties – largely Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk with a small proportion within Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. The catchment is endowed with high-grade agricultural land and land use is predominantly arable agriculture.
The CamEO priority catchment is characterised by Chalklands in the south, Brecklands in the north and the South Level Fenland to the east of the area. The catchment incorporates the rivers Cam, Wissey, Little Ouse and Lark as well as tributaries to those rivers. All drain to the Ely Ouse that discharges to tide at Denver. The priority catchment includes an extensive area of fenland (The South Level) which is level managed. The water levels are controlled using pumping stations to prevent flooding of the land during wet periods, and water is allowed in during the drier periods for agricultural use.
The low lying lands of the Fens are protected from inundation by the sea and fluvial floods by the Denver Complex at Denver. Across the CamEO priority catchment there are ~120 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

East Anglia Area water trading guidelines - 2020 > East Anglia Area trading and aggregation approach

For more information on Cam & Ely Ouse catchment, please contact enquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk  and visit http://www.cameopartnership.org/

More Information

The River Till is within Northumberland and is the principle English river tributary to the River Tweed - a border river between England and Scotland. The rivers are designated a Special Area of Conservation and are some of the best fishing rivers for salmon and sea trout in the UK. The major surface water abstraction is irrigation by the region’s farmers, with public drinking water supplies being abstracted from the Fell Sandstone aquifer. In places, the aquifer is connected to surface waters and groundwater abstractions may have had a detrimental impact on the flows in nearby surface streams. Exemptions for water abstractions were in place in the Till and Tweed and so the Environment Agency water resource regulation was historically minimal. As part of the project to move to the Environment Agency regulation, there is an opportunity to implement abstraction reform, working towards making abstraction sustainable across all sectors and ensuring water availability is maximised within environmental constraints. This will be key in protecting the conservation status and the fishing tourism industry in the future. Key challenges are forming a new regulative partnership with SEPA to manage abstraction from the Tweed and working with other regulatory bodies with varied interests in the catchment (Tweed Commission, Natural England).
For more information on Till and Tweed catchment, please contact Carol Mahoney.

More Information

Located on the south coast, the Arun and Western Streams contains the urban areas of Chichester, Worthing and Horsham with the largely rural area of the South Downs National Park running through it. Water is primarily used for public water supply and agriculture with those needs mainly met by the chalk and greensand aquifers and the River Rother. Working with local stakeholders we aim to understand the pressure on water resources and to explore options which could improve access to water whilst still ensuring that the local environment is protected. We anticipate looking at options to improve drought resilience, possibilities for winter storage and to work with other local groups to maximise environmental benefits.
For more information on Arun & Western Streams catchment, please contact Alison Matthews.

More Information

Photo showing natural recharge feature at Ebworth Estate, Alt and CrossensNatural recharge feature at Ebworth Estate, Alt and Crossens
The Alt and Crossens catchment is an area of low-lying land between the Mersey and Ribble Estuaries. Approximately 30% of the catchment is made up of urban areas, including North Liverpool, Formby and Southport along the coast and Kirby, Maghull and Ormskirk inland. A large area of the catchment is high grade farmland which is crossed by a series of highly modified watercourses and drains. The water levels are controlled by 13 pumping stations and the catchments drain out into Liverpool Bay and the Ribble Estuary.
Important features of this catchment are the Sefton Coast and the Ribble and Alt Estuaries which are internationally important for wildlife and have numerous designations, such as Ramsar, SPA, SAC, Site of Special Scientific Interest and NNR. The drained agricultural areas are important habitats as these areas are vital as roosting and feeding areas for internationally important numbers of wintering birds; as well as being home to a nationally important Water Vole population.
Due to the engineered drainage of the area, the Alt Crossens catchment is also under significant water resources pressure during the summer months, where more sustainable abstraction and irrigation is required.
In addition to the extensive water level management impacts on the catchment many of the water bodies are heavily modified and are under pressure from both urban and rural diffuse pollution. In the south of the catchment there are pollution impacts from sewage discharges, mis-connections, industry and transport and to the north of the area agricultural run-off is a major source of pollution. The watercourses in the Alt and Crossens catchment have classifications that range between good and bad ecological potential, 3% are good, and the remaining 97% are moderate or bad.
Vegetable crops such as Leeks cover vast areas of land on the Alt and CrossensVegetable crops such as Leeks cover vast areas of land on the Alt and Crossens
For more information on Alt & Crossens catchment, please contact Simon Bennett.

More Information

A photo showing West Lydford, overlooking St Peter’s Church and  the River BrueWest Lydford, overlooking St Peter’s Church and  the River Brue
The River Brue rises from a greensand aquifer on the western slopes of Stourhead, close to the villages of North Brewham and Kilmington in Somerset, before flowing through the Somerset Levels and Moors and finally entering the sea at Highbridge.
Much of the river is low lying and prone to flooding. In order to manage this the landscape has been modified by rhynes controlled by sluices, forming a complex artificial drainage system. These channel are penned over the drier months to retain water for wet fencing.
The Brue catchment has several designated sites of importance for wildlife and habitats. Of which the Site of Special Scientific Interest and SPA/Ramsar sites are currently failing due to water level management and water quality issues affecting the ecosystems. The water quality issues cannot be dissociated from the water quantity issues, as run-off from urban and agricultural land contribute to poor water quality which is exacerbated by the lack of flow.
There are a vast number of transfers of water within the catchment which are exempt from any licencing regime. This project will therefore look at new ways of working in partnership to address water management issues and identify opportunities to improve: water resources, land management, nutrient loading, riparian habitat and channel morphology, to create a more sustainable catchment.
A photo of Tootle Bridge, Barton St David. Confluence of the Barton and Lydford Millstream with the River Brue.Tootle Bridge, Barton St David. Confluence of the Barton and Lydford Millstream with the River Brue.
For more information about Brue catchment, please contact Alex Jenner.

More Information

The River Otter, in Devon, emerges from Upper Greensand springs on the Blackdown Hills and flows in a south westerly direction past Honiton and Ottery St Mary where it reaches the sea near Budleigh Salterton. Downstream of Fenny Bridges the River Otter flows across the Otter groundwater body, which makes a significant contribution to the river via base-flow and is important for supporting ecology in the river, the Otter estuary and the pebble bed heath wetlands.
The Otter groundwater body is made up of the Otter Sandstone and the underlying Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds. Both of these strata yield significant quantities of water, which are utilised by South West Water for the strategic water supply for local communities. Hydrological and hydrogeological processes in the catchment are known to be complex.
With support from the East Devon catchment partnership and South West Water, we intend to bring together a catchment group to co-develop solutions. From the current water company focused PR19 scheme, this will widen the discussions to include private abstractors, farmers, other stakeholders and special interest groups. We intend to explore the potential for using nature-based solutions to improve drought resilience and related environmental benefits.
For more information on Otter catchment, please contact Sean Arnott.

Milestones from the Abstraction Plan:

Publish updated abstraction licensing strategies detailing outcomes from the priority catchments by:

  • December 2020 for the four Phase 1 priority catchments - Published
  • December 2021 for the six Phase 2 priority catchments
  • December 2027 for all catchments 

Our Vision:

Our vision is that by adopting a catchment based approach in priority catchments, we will enable stakeholders across a catchment to work together to co-develop solutions to trial which will improve access to water and ensure sustainable abstraction.


  • Recreational and commercial river users
  • Fishing clubs and representative associations
  • Members of the public with an interest in the river, the species and conservation
  • Businesses
  • Charities
  • Statutory organisations
  • NGOs
  • Members of the public
  • Elected representatives, including MPs
  • Local councils
  • Academics
  • All water abstractors
  • Environment Agency customers
  • River based salmon angling owners/fishing clubs/organisations
  • Individual migratory salmonid licence holders
  • National based fishery, conservation and landowner organisations
  • Government family organisations
  • IDBs
  • Local authorities
  • District and parish councils
  • Environmental bodies
  • Land owners
  • Farming associations
  • Drainage associations
  • RFCCs
  • Elected representatives, including MPs
  • Water companies
  • Members of the public
  • Recreational and commercial river users
  • Community groups
  • Flood action groups
  • Environment Agency colleagues
  • Lead Local Flood Authorities
  • Local Risk Management Authorities
  • Flood Resilience Forums
  • Members of the public
  • Town and parish councils
  • Internal Drainage Boards
  • Engagement specialists/operational staff in Natural Resources Wales, local authorities and other risk management authorities


  • Business and industry
  • Flood management
  • Coastal management
  • Fishing and boating
  • Water resources
  • Water quality
  • Drought
  • Habitats and wildlife