The European Commission's Water Framework Directive has been hailed as the most significant piece of water legislation in more than 20 years, changing the legal framework for waters across Europe. Ian Rippin, from the National Laboratory Service, explains how it will work

Back in December 2000, the European Commission introduced a brand new piece of legislation, the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Transforming the face of water legislation, the WFD is set to eventually protect and improve, as well as achieve a sustainable use of the whole water environment throughout all of Europe.

The official title for the WFD is Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy. The timetable for the UK to react to the WFD was set when it was first adopted by UK law in 2003. Since that point it has become the responsibility of the Environment Agency, alongside the agency lab, the National Laboratory Service, to implement the directive throughout England and Wales.

The WFD has already replaced some existing water legislation and it is now also set to take over a number of European directives, like the Freshwater Fish Directive and Shellfish Directive, by the end of 2013.

Ultimately, the WFD expands the scope of water protection and dictates that by 2015 all waters, surface waters and groundwaters – including lakes, streams and rivers, as well as estuaries and coastal waters to one mile from low water – must achieve ‘good water status’. This ‘good water status’ incorporates both chemical parameters (meaning low levels of pollution), as well as ecological ones. Good ecological status is an innovative step for EU water legislation and means that Member States will also be required to address the factors harming water eco-systems.

Under the directive any company that holds a permit to discharge water, such as businesses within the food and drink industry, must carry out tests to ensure that they are not introducing pollutants into the water. The monitoring will revolve around assessing exactly what is going into a certain river basin that could result in higher pollution levels than what is permitted under the WFD.

Ahead of the introduction of the directive, companies will be looking at exactly what they are permitted to discharge into waters and they will be testing for those in their waters to make sure they comply with the low levels as laid out

under the WFD.

Successful implementation of the WFD will ultimately help to protect every element of the water cycle and improve the quality and sustainability of all waters. At the heart of the WFD lies the requirement of countries to designate river basin management areas, which have been championed as the most appropriate model to follow in order to allow for this single system of water management.

Once established, each river basin management area would fall under a certain district – these districts will then be used, under the guidance of the WFD, to manage all water environments. Across both England and Wales, 11 River Basin Districts have been identified, alongside 40 international river basins within the European Union. Several Member States have already adopted the innovative river basin approach, however this is not universal everywhere.

Instructions within the directive dictate that each of these river basin districts must produce a River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) – that also includes monitoring programmes – before the end of this year. These plans will specify the measures that need to be taken to achieve ‘good status’ in all water bodies by 2015 and will be established and updated every six years.

The plan will include thorough directions on how the objectives marked out for each river basin – primarily good chemical as well as ecological status – will be achieved within the timescales required. All countries must also establish the environmental objectives that signify a ‘good’ status in each of the water bodies

within their river basin districts. Monitoring programmes and a programme of measures to ensure all water bodies achieve a ‘good’ status form the most crucial requirements of the directive.

Many factors can contribute to the high level of surface water bodies at risk of falling below ‘good’ status. These include specific point sources, such as pollution from industrial plants, as well as diffuse sources, such as agriculture. A snapshot of the condition of English rivers from the Environment Agency showed that only five rivers — four in Northumberland and one in North Wales — met the tough new standards to monitor water quality, as set out in the EU Water Framework directive.

The first cycle of the UK’s RBMP was recently submitted to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Welsh Ministers on 22 September. These plans are expected to be approved and published on 22 December. Following on from this, and in order to realise the directive’s objectives, it is imperative that the UK and Europe begins implementing their RBMPs before the end of December 2009.

As well as the implementation of this brand new system, the WFD will also signal the arrival of lower detection rates for selected compounds within the water testing process. Current existing analytical methods do not have the ability to test to such low levels as laid out under the directive – thus opening up the doors on new opportunities for research and development. It is crucial that these developments in techniques and enhanced methodologies are fully achieved and completed in order to meet the requirements of the directive.

Analysing for lower levels of pollutants in the water brings a challenge for the Environment Agency, which will also be tasked with determining the source of some of these pollutants and challenging the industries involved – mainly within the water effluents industry – to make sure that they are complying with the WFD.

The pressure is now on for all of the river basins to reach good quality and status levels. As a direct result of this, the overall outcome will see the regulatory framework become a lot tougher, as set out above, on any industry that discharges into waters. It is the job of the Environment Agency to make sure it can control any discharges that may cause pollution under these tighter regulations.

At the moment there is a scientific challenge linked to all of this legislation as the chemistry needs to catch up with the regulations. As part of the directive we need the methods and we need the tests so that we can achieve detection for the lowest levels of compounds, as dictated by the directive. The Environment Agency’s laboratories, led by the National Laboratory Service (NLS), are tasked with delivering on these methods, supported through the use of dedicated R&D.

When it comes to actually employing the analytical capabilities, the NLS will pave the way within the UK. It is then hoped that the NLS will develop its capabilities, in support of the Environment Agency, to such a level that it will be able to expand its expertise into the Eastern European market.

Investment in R&D within Eastern Europe has historically been very poor, resulting in a significant gap between the UK’s knowledge and expertise when compared with the Eastern European, and indeed Accession states. It is hoped that this situation can be remedied through offering expert guidance and technical support to the states which have limited experience of environmental monitoring for legislative compliance.

It is not yet obvious what the full impact will be on the water industry and businesses within this arena as a result of the directive, however it is clear that if we are going to achieve and maintain a good standard of water, in line with the WFD, everybody needs to join together and work towards completing all of the main objectives ahead of the full implementation in 2015.

Ian Rippin is the commercial director at National Laboratory Service

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