Anticipating river management

The draft River Basin Management Plans will be published next month. Simon Clarke of the EIC's Water Pollution Control Working Group analyses some of the issues and concerns

Back in February, Defra issued its second consultation on guidance for river basin management planning in England and Wales. This built on its initial guidance which set out its expectations of the key principles and steps in the river basin planning process to be adopted. The plans include the content of the documents that the Environment Agency (EA) is required to produce for each River Basin District (RBD).

The Environmental Industries Commission’s (EIC) Water Pollution Control Working Group has welcomed the Water Framework Directive (WFD) as an important environmental protection measure, and as having a beneficial economic impact – if implemented effectively. But, as ever, it is the details of the implementation that will decide if it fulfils this promise.

The second consultation focused on the approach the EA should take in implementing the WFD, which requires that all surface waters achieve “good ecological status” by 2015. The consultation addressed issues such as the adoption of environmental standards, the setting of objectives, policy trends that should be considered, and interpretation of “technical infeasibility” and “disproportionate costs”.

The guidance was informed by the key conclusions and outcomes from a great deal of work carried out by the government, environment agencies and stakeholders at the time, while recognising that a lot of work was still ongoing. The consultation has provoked some strong responses, in particular with accusations of “over-precautionary” water quality standards and too much of the clean-up costs being “piled” on to the water companies (Ends Report 401).

The extent to which these and other concerns are truly justified is likely to be revealed in the publication of the draft River Basin Management Plans (dRBMPs) and their impact assessments this December. But, before jumping on this bandwagon of criticism, it is worth acknowledging the amount of work that has gone into developing the plans thus far taking into account the views of key stakeholders in the process.

Some of the issues and concerns identified in relation to the guidance are explored further below.

Standards and objectives

A range of new standards and criteria have been developed by the UK Technical Advisory Group (UKTAG – an independent scientific body including environmental regulators and academics) to support implementation of the WFD. These standards and criteria include, for example, in-river standards for concentrations of ammonia and phosphorus as well as for specific pollutants such as certain metals and pesticides.

Standards for the most toxic pollutants that cause a threat to or via the aquatic environment, known as priority substances, are the subject of a separate “daughter” directive. While the standards must be applied, other criteria relating to flow and morphological conditions are also proposed to inform the decision-making process but do not necessarily have to be conformed to.

The proposed standard for phosphorus (a plant nutrient and pollutant present in sewage effluent and farmland runoff) has been described by Ofwat as “one of the most onerous phosphorus standards in Europe”. The regulator has serious concerns as to whether such a standard offers a sustainable option given the reliance on chemical dosing or energy-intensive methods of treatments.

But the Environment Agency acknowledges that it does not have confidence that the chemical standards perfectly reflect the ecological responses in all situations and that they will not necessarily promote action purely because of phosphate standard failure on its own (Board Paper (EA (08) 08). How this translates into the measures included within the dRBMP remains to be seen.

Standards may be reviewed over time. But, while this may address cases where standards are found to be over-precautionary, it may not be helpful for dischargers and their planning. Many Environmental Quality Standards (EQSs) are weak (for example, based on insufficient data) or precautionary (for some metals and pesticides). And wastewater plant effluents containing any detectable amount of these substances may risk contributing to downstream EQS failure (some are less than 1ng/l).

Investment now, only to find that the EQS is relaxed in the future, will be a waste of money. Alternatively in the event of a standard being made more stringent, there is a risk of the requirement of piece-meal investment and upgrade, which is also unsatisfactory and inefficient. Further research is required to generate greater certainty.

A key question posed within the guidance is whether it should advise the EA that its preference should be to extend deadlines rather than setting less stringent objectives, where there is a choice between the two. However, the choice may not be that simple as, depending on the situation, either of these options may be applied. Extending deadlines will be appropriate for substances where source control has yet to bite, whereas setting less stringent objectives is appropriate for standards which are too precautionary and/or there is no evidence of ecological impact.

Policy trends

The guidance recognises that some policies will assist with achieving the WFD objectives, while others will conflict. Research in this area has concluded that the overall picture is complicated with significant uncertainty. Policy around carbon emissions and its alignment with WFD objectives continues to be an area of debate.

Water UK claimed that the guidance does not adequately consider the carbon dioxide emissions which will result from the additional water treatment required by the directive (Ends Report 401, p48). But the EA claims that it will be identifying the potential impact of climate change through screening the proposed measures accordingly.

Furthermore, Defra’s methodology for assessing cost effectiveness of measures includes the requirement to consider whether a particular measure could potentially change the levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Whether such assurances fully address the carbon emissions debate remains to be seen.

Technical infeasibility

It is “technically infeasible” to achieve an objective only where no technical solution is available or where there is no information on the cause of the problem and hence a solution cannot be identified. “Disproportionate costs” are defined by the situation where the negative consequences (compliance costs, non-water related impacts and distributional issues) outweigh the positive consequences (benefits of water status improvements). Both technical infeasibility and disproportionate costs can be used as a justification for extending deadlines in meeting objectives.

Distributional issues (the comparison of who pays and who benefits) are recognised as a key factor in assessing disproportionate costs. However, costing across sectors is rarely even, owing to variable amounts of available data and therefore variable assumptions.

It will be important to avoid falling into the trap of applying a lower weighting to options where the cost effectiveness is least well defined. If this is the case, point source discharges (intensively regulated) will be bound to be highlighted as a better option than ill-defined diffuse sources, which in reality also contribute to the problem.

In terms of technical infeasibility, some standards for chemicals cannot be determined with accuracy using current laboratory analytical techniques. And for others treatment technologies are not sufficiently advanced to meet receiving water requirements.

Technology providers and laboratories need time, however, to develop, perfect and market these solutions – they cannot invest in innovative technologies if they are unsure of the standards and regulations they have to meet. The River Basin Management plans need to focus on the need to ensure compliance with the objectives of the directive and provide clarity to all stakeholders on the standards.

Impact assessment

The Impact Assessment (IA) accompanying the consultation looks at the costs and benefits of achieving WFD objectives by 2015 (Option 1) or under a “phased” approach by 2027 (Option 2). In the discussion in the IA, the focus is on the risk of extra costs being incurred if a precautionary approach is followed to ensuring the directive requirements are met in Option 1.

Option 2 (the preferred option) works on the principle of progressively reducing uncertainty so that only necessary, targeted action is taken.

In its response to the consultation, EIC’s Water Pollution Control Working Group highlighted the lack of focus in the IA on the risks of failing to meet the directive, as opposed to just phasing compliance over a longer time period. Defra will be aware of the current case of the National Emissions Ceiling Directive, where changes in the fuel mix and calculation methodology mean that the UK is now on course to fail to meet the directive’s 2010 targets by some distance. This leaves it with a choice between rushed, costly measures, or being open to infraction proceedings. This lesson must be taken on board in ensuring actions taken to meet the directive do not leave us vulnerable to failure to comply.

There is also little mention or consideration of innovation in the IA. The government’s recent document on Building a Low Carbon Economy sets out plans for IAs to consider the role of innovation and how to encourage it.

The failure to consider the beneficial impacts of innovation created by the need to comply with the WFD means the costs are likely to be substantially over-estimated. Ex-ante assessments of previous EU directives have shown a clear trend for actual costs being far lower than estimated.

Finally, it seems that in many cases that the uncertainty surrounding the benefits is greater than for the cost analysis. Where this is the case, the cost-benefit outcome will potentially be skewed. This is particularly the case where outcomes are based on public perception rather then direct benefits associated with improved water quality, which has been stated as a relatively minor benefit.

Separate IAs are currently being prepared to accompany each of the draft river basin management plans. Defra has recently commissioned a study to provide an independent critique of these impact assessments and the extent to which they provide supporting evidence for the dRBMPs and adhere to the principles of river basin planning as set out in the guidance. The outcome of this analysis is awaited with interest.

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