New horizons

Stephen Bolt looks at the far-reaching implications that the conclusion of the Water Framework Directive is likely to bring

Adopted by EU member states in 2000 and becoming UK law in 2003, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) represents a major change in water protection. Tasked with ensuring the “good” ecological and chemical status of water resources across Europe, the directive will bring with it a raft of environmental and economic benefits.

We are now working towards meeting the WFD targets. By 2009, action plans will be finalised and agreed, and we will be looking to begin implementing new water standards by 2015. However, the implementation of the directive – scheduled for final completion in 2027 – looks set to cost far more than was initially envisaged, with billions of euros being spent across Europe.

In addition to the financial cost, the UK, along with other European countries, could also find a much-changed landscape that will look very different from that of the late 20th Century. Indeed, the WFD may well herald a landscape revolution.

Most important legislation

Without a doubt, the WFD represents the single most important piece of water-related legislation since the UK joined the EU, and it is set to have a huge positive impact on the aquatic environment throughout Europe. To date, all the signs point to the fact that the directive will at least achieve some of its aims, and by 2027 the EU will be celebrating the fact that the majority of water will have achieved the required “good” chemical and biological status.

Yet, it is important to remember that in achieving this success, the financial outlay is likely to be very high.

It is becoming increasingly clear, as risks and impacts of both point and diffuse pollution are assessed, that a complex and wide-ranging programme of measures will be required

to achieve the standards.

There is almost certainly further investment needed to improve point sources, such as sewage-treatment works, storm overflows, as well as significant changes in land-management practices. In addition, the construction of wetlands may well be needed to complete the task.

While the WFD will make itself felt financially, the effects on our environment will also be substantial, with the landscape likely to undergo significant changes, primarily in aesthetic terms and also in the way the land is used. In the aftermath of the WFD, we can expect to see a reduction in agricultural land in sensitive areas across the country and an increase in amenity forests, wetlands and parklands.

The potential benefits, such as increased tourism and cleaner water, associated with the implementation of the WFD, were estimated to be valued at around £560 million a year. At the time, this was considered to be cautious because of the range of potential benefits that could not be quantified.

While this sum is encouraging, one cannot forget that in order to reap such eventual benefits, it is entirely possible that the cost of implementation may well exceed these benefits.

However, in spite of the social and economic cost of the directive, it will represent a major step forward in a key quality-of-life indicator, our water, from ecological improvement of raw water quality to the recreational and general amenity benefits.

The WFD recognises water as a precious asset that cannot be taken for granted, and we must embrace this concept.

Stephen Bolt is Head of Integrated Water Management at ADAS

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