End of term report: Could we do better for the WFD?

The WFD's deadline for achieving its water management objectives is getting closer. But, says Chris Williams, Chief Operating Officer of Hydro International, recent flood activity has made us lose sight of the underlying concerns

Are we being distracted from the main event? With the effects of climate change hitting home to the general public over the past four years (dry, very wet, wet, wet), there has been a flurry of government activity on the water front.

This has resulted in a lot of public focus, government enquiries, reports, promised action and attempts to ensure that a wider community is involved in finding solutions, culminating in the draft Flood and Water Management bill, which has recently finished its consultation period.

All well and good, but a look at the fundamental problems that underlie the management of our water resources can be dated back to 25 to 30 years ago.

The context

The Water Framework Directive (WFD), which was formally adopted by European Parliament in 2000, was the consolidation of a number of EU water initiatives and directives dating from 1975, with a particular concentration in the late 1980s and through the 1990s.

The WFD’s co-ordination of objectives for surface water management and groundwater management was to achieve ‘good status for all waters by a set deadline’, i.e. the end of 2015.

The Environment Agency (EA) has the responsibility for overseeing its implementation by working with water companies and other agencies, and the companies’ revenue and expenditure are overseen by Ofwat through fiveyear Asset Management Plan cycles (AMP).

AMP 5, the last in the series before we have to face the ‘end-of-term’ assessment, starts in 2010. Thus, it’s a good time to look at what we have achieved, what we ought to be achieving and what we might be able to do to achieve a reasonable pass, if not an A*.

Where is the main objective?

Perhaps as a result of the flood activity, and the desire by those in charge of water policy to be seen to address current concerns, we may have lost sight of the concerns that underlie the WFD.

Ofwat’s ‘Future water and sewage charges 2010-15: Draft determinations – executive summary points out in the foreword that we have moved from being considered the ‘dirty man of Europe’ over the past 20 years to having world class drinking water, fish in the Thames and 71 blue flag beaches. We must not become complacent and the drop in the number of quality bathing beaches this year should be a warning. One might argue that establishing a better basis for good quality water for the future is in all of our interests, and that better explanation and education of the long-term aims for our total water resource management would gain support. Perhaps implementation of the wider strategy for better quality water a victim of the credit squeeze? Article four of the WFD allows measures not perceived as being of sufficient cost/benefit ratio to be derogated and an extension of time to be sought.

Flood defence or prevention?

The EA polices the steps towards meeting WFD’s requirements, and has recently delivered its draft River Basin Management Plans, in December 2008. This event illustrates the two sides of the UK’s water management equation, and how they

are still moving on parallel tracks, hopefully towards future convergence.

Much is focused on flood defence spending, with projected annual requirements doubling to £1B per year by 2035. Otherwise, it is claimed that flooding as a result of climate change could cause up to £4B of damage annually.

The EA’s funding settlement runs out in 2011, and these projections may be regarded as advanced lobbying. Against this, Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, has been cautioning over tough economic conditions, resource allocations and quality of life. But in this jockeying for finance, are some fundamental requirements and methods for meeting WFD being forgotten?

Still time to make a difference

There are several key ways we can get closer to meeting the WFD. For example, we could greatly improve control of stormwater volume and quality close to the fall point. The technology is already available, and more is being introduced.

SUDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) have been identified by public and industry opinion formers as an approach that should be implemented to control flooding. The responsibility for implementing SUDS measures has been passed on to local authorities and a £16M has been allocated to support it.

The full scope of SUDS methodology is often misunderstood, and the philosophy of using the most appropriate techniques in each application sometimes takes second place to a misplaced assumption that totally natural means are the only applicable ones. In urban contexts, hard engineered SUDS techniques may be the only ones that can effectively be installed to control hard surface run off and pollutants such as silts, sediments, hydrocarbons and others.

New tactics to suit the context are being put into practice by Welsh Water, for example, with schemes to disconnect rainwater downpipes

from the storm sewer system in built-up areas.

Paving over front gardens in urban areas is another problem that has attracted planning attention. Finally, rainwater harvesting could be integrated into all new build schemes.

Improving discharge quality

Improvement in stormwater run off quality would receive a major boost if pollution from uncontrolled CSOs was properly addressed. This source is a major and constant important long term pollution risk. Existing technology is developed and fully proven, whether for remote or satellite CSO schemes. Small system footprints for low capital costs, no power requirement and no moving parts ensure low running costs and minimal maintenance, ideal for our strained economic times and we would be a lot nearer the overall water quality requirements.

Bringing the highway drainage network fully into the control framework should also be a priority, as highways are a major source of stormwater run off with associated sediments and pollution. Installation of effective sediment and silt management is being implemented on the M25 in the 2009 widening programme.

Agriculture is also a major source of diffuse pollution, with phosphorous and ammonia entering from fertiliser and slurry spreading practices; identification and mitigation of these requires investment and careful planning.

We need to address retrospective measures for additional stormwater and CSO control, especially in urban areas, instead of merely looking at new projects.

Although potentially costly, major retrospective investments could bring large benefits, despite lacking in glamour.

Use existing means more effectively

In conclusion, is our end of term report on our achievements for WFD in 2015 going to be ‘could have done better’? Other EU countries are in the same situation, but is it a sufficient excuse? Have we had the means available to make a better success of it, or have these been sidelined to some extent while other agendas have been followed?

With questions like these still open, we look forward to the next five years with interest.

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