Guidance documents

Protection of Drinking Water Sources

Roles, Responsibilities and Pollution Prevention Advice

Legislation summary

The standards and requirements for drinking water are enacted in National Regulations. They are enforced in respect of private water supplies in England through the Private Water Supplies Regulations 2016, and the Private Water Supplies (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2018, and The Private Water Supplies (Wales) Regulations 2017. 

The Water Industry Act 1991, the primary national legislation, defines the powers and responsibilities of local authorities in relation to private water supplies and the definition of a relevant person(s).

Local Authorities

Local authorities are the regulators for private water supplies and have statutory duties under the Private Water Supplies Regulations. These Regulations place a duty on local authorities to carry out a risk assessment of each private water supply in their area (except supplies to single untenanted dwellings). They are also required to carry out monitoring of its quality to determine compliance with drinking water standards and to verify the risk assessment. The risk assessment considers the contamination hazards of the source of the supply and the surrounding area. It also involves checks on any storage tanks, treatment systems and associated pipe work and fittings. The local authority has powers to require that the supply is improved where necessary by whoever they consider to be the relevant persons. This may be a supply user, owner, someone who exercises control over the supply or the owner of land on which the source is located.

Local authorities are required by the Regulations to provide private water supply monitoring data to the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The DWI shares this information with the Environment Agency.

Drinking Water Inspectorate

The Drinking Water Inspectorate acts on behalf of the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to provide technical and scientific advise to local authorities in relation to the implementation of the Private Water Supply Regulations. It publishes an annual report on the quality of private water supplies in England and Wales.

Environment Agency

The Environment Agency identifies Drinking Water Protected Areas and facilitates environmental improvements to meet environmental objectives. In partnership with others, it identifies the measures needed to achieve these objectives and facilitates agreement with those who will implement protection measures. Examples of the measures needed to meet drinking water protected area objectives include reducing fertiliser and pesticide losses from land.

River basin management plans (RBMPs) describe the challenges that threaten the water environment, and how these challenges can be managed and funded. They also provide an overarching strategic framework for managing the water environment. Further details on draft RBMPs can be found on The Environment Agency’s website here.

Draft RBMPs consist of documents and online systems which present the data and maps. Draft RBMPs data can be viewed, printed or download using these systems. There are also links to downloadable data in the documents. The guide to the draft river basin management plans explains how the documents and data systems make up the draft RBMPs.

The Environment Agency will provide, where available, information to help local authorities to assess the environmental risks that could affect the quality of private water supplies, for example knowledge of the local geology, water quality trends and catchment management initiatives. Wherever practicable, when a pollution incident occurs near a private supply, the Environment Agency will notify the local authority of the incident. The Environment Agency ensures environmental permits or abstraction licences are not issued for activities that could impact on private water supplies.

Supply owners and other relevant persons

For the majority (67%) of people who use private water supplies, their supply is drawn from groundwater, with the remainder mostly supplied from surface water. Private water supplies greater than 20 m3 per day require an abstraction licence. It is the owner’s responsibility to apply for and comply with an abstraction licence, which can be obtained through the government’s website.

All relevant persons, as defined in the Water Industry Act 1991, must enable the local authority to carry out their duties so that they can protect public health. Where the local authority has advised or served notice on any relevant person to improve the supply, they must either appeal or comply with that notice.

Pollution Prevention Advice

Infrastructure associated with private water supplies e.g., boreholes, springs and their associated pipe work, like other structures, require maintenance to ensure they are in good working order. Poorly maintained systems e.g., damaged borehole head works or casings, can allow contaminants to enter a water supply, and until fixed present an ongoing risk to the supply. It is the owner’s or supply manager’s responsibility to ensure the structures associated with the private water supply are well maintained and specialist advice from a well driller, the well drillers association or a plumber may be needed to fix any problems.

Other potential sources of pollution impacting private water supplies may include farming activities, spills from domestic heating oil tanks and discharges from septic tanks/soak away systems. Supply owners and managers are encouraged by the regulators to develop an awareness of the risk to their supply from pollution in the catchment and consider what pollution prevention measures can be taken by themselves or others to minimise the risks.

Where a sewage or other discharge is within 50 metres of a private water supply, an environmental permit may be required to ensure protection of the private water supply. It is the discharge operator’s responsibility to apply for and adhere to the environmental permit. These permits can be applied for through the government website.

Should a pollution incident occur that affects a private water supply, it should be reported to the Environment Agency’s national incident hotline on 0800 807060. The Environment Agency will record the incident and may require further investigation and/or remedial works by the polluter. They may also inform the local authority and take enforcement action where appropriate.