Exploring catchment management

Justin Taberham of CIWEM and Bob Earll of Coastal Management for Sustainability offer some insight into the progress of river basin management plans in the UK

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is a wide-ranging and challenging European environmental directive setting out for the first time a detailed and integrated framework for the improved protection and management of all of Europe’s water resources and aquatic environments from each catchment to the sea.

Catchment management is an idea that has a long history in the management of water in the UK, legislation in the 1970s, catchment management plans in the early 1990s and later Leaps. It is widely understood the UK argued successfully the concept of river basin management should be embodied in the WFD. Despite this long track record, all is clearly not as it should be with catchment management in the UK – potential has not been realised and there are serious failings of the current approach.

The WFD has clear commitments to river basin management (RBM), which include:

  • by 2006 publish details of how each river basin management plan will be produced,
  • by 2008 each river basin will have a draft management plan to be finished in 2009,
  • this will include a programme of measures designed to enable each river basin to meet good ecological status,
  • process of producing the river basin plan must involve public participation.
  • The river basin management planning process has been informed by European Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) documents and 15 pilot studies are now under way across Europe from which lessons will be drawn. The Ribble in the north-west of England has been chosen as the pilot study for the UK.

    The Environment Agency (EA) is developing a river basin planning strategy, which will be the basis for an extensive consultation early in 2005. The final strategy is likely to be published later in 2005. How many river basins? It is still not very clear at what scale planning and delivery will take place. For reporting the progress of the delivery of the WFD, a number – nine in England and Wales and two cross-border with Scotland – of river basin districts have been identified and agreed by the government, the EA and the EU. There is a real problem in that the river basin districts are very large, they are often comprised of multiple ‘catchments’ and do not often have clear resonance with the geographic alignment of stakeholders.

    It could be that at the river basin district level a more strategic approach might need to be taken. Sub-units (40-50) are likely to be put forward by the EA in its consultation, for example, similar to the Ribble scale. The challenges faced with pollution control, biodiversity, water resources and drainage require a much greater range of integrated solutions. The WFD recognises this need, as do many practitioners, and it would seem logical in many ways to focus co-ordinated efforts and delivery at a catchment scale.
    The WFD provides for this process through participatory planning but the reality is delivery will require detailed management and ongoing stakeholder engagement and there is no clarity about how this will operate in practice. A large range of organisations are involved in implementation and delivery of the WFD.

    In the Ribble pilot, the EA staff recognised this early in the process and understanding this helped to make real progress quickly. The EA is clearly in no position to actually do all the work required under the WFD. There is a big element of ‘the devil’s in the detail’. The directive is a major step forward but without additional resources to actually deliver on the ground and some major culture changes within the EA it will be a real challenge to reach almost universal ‘good ecological status’ as required under the directive.
    The winner of the 2005 RSPB/Living Wetlands Award will be announced at the World Wetlands Day 2005 Conference, which is to be held on January 31 and February 1, 2005 in London. CIWEM organises an ongoing series of conferences on WFD issues. Events have been held on issues including ecological status, river basin management and diffuse pollution.

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