Safeguarding water – from source to sea

The new EU Water Framework Directive has far-reaching implacations for cross-border river basin management as it recognises that whole lifecycle monitoring is the only way forward. Tim Lack of WRc reports.

After more than three years of negotiation, there has been a major breakthrough for European water policy. Legislation has been reformed and there is to be a new approach to water management. The new EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) published in the European Journal in December 2000 will have far reaching effects on European river basin management in particular.

Where rivers flow wholly within a Member State, the relevant authorities must assign individual river basins to defined river basin districts (RBD). Small rivers may be added into a larger district, while groundwaters are assigned to the nearest or most appropriate one.

The same applies to coastal waters. When a river crosses several boundaries both within and between countries, Member States must agree an international RBD. Many of these already exist for example on the Rhine, Danube, Elbe, Meuse, and Scheldt. Where rivers cross over frontiers that are outside the EU, Member States should endeavour to form an international RBD, but in any event must apply the Directive in the EU country.

Defining water bodies

Governments need to make provision in several areas in the coming years as the Directive is implemented. They must categorise water bodies as rivers, lakes, estuaries or coastal waters. For each category, every water body must be defined according to altitude, size – based on catchment area – and geology. Different arrangements may be made for heavily modified surface water bodies such as canals or urban rivers. Groundwaters also require separate characterisation.

Governments must also collect and maintain information on man-made pressures on the water bodies, such as:

  • Urban, industrial, agricultural and other point sources of pollution;
  • Diffuse sources of pollution – mostly but not uniquely agricultural;
  • Significant water abstractions for all uses;
  • Significant water flow regulation;
  • Significant morphological alteration eg: where canals and flood relief measures have been constructed;
  • Significant land use patterns.

The Water Framework Directive calls for each Member State to create for each RBD a River Basin Management Plan that will specify what practical steps the Government is taking to ensure compliance with the Directive. All aspects, including the human generated pressures, are considered and integrated into this Plan, in order to achieve ‘good’ quality status of all waters. A diverse, balanced and sustainable ecosystem is essential, together with a respect for the environmental quality standards for pollutants.

The Plan will include measures such as controlling point and diffuse sources, regulating abstraction to maintain sustainable use of water, and complying with all other water Directives coming under the Framework.

As a key part of the new Directive, some pollutants will be completely eliminated over an agreed time period. The final list will be published in the near future as soon as the negotiations have been finalised. These substances will be controlled by monitoring discharges and the environment for those substances, and by controlling the sources of pollution.

Network monitoring

Progress will be monitored over time, as it is important to assess the long term changes both natural and man induced, on water bodies. Operational monitoring must be ongoing and the results reported to the European Commission, over a six-year cycle. This is where the European Environment Agency through its European Topic Centres (ETC) plays its part.

The European Topic Centre for Water (ETC-Water), led by UK based environmental consultant WRc plc, maintains a network of monitoring stations based on national networks. The network known as EUROWATERNET is designed to provide representative data and information on the status and pressures of all European waters. It is a networked database with accessible water information, collated from 31 countries in Europe. This low cost system provides an acceptable format through which Governments can both access information and report progress.

Marine participation

WRc has been the lead partner in the ETC for Inland Water for six years and has developed and implemented EUROWATERNET. At present there is no representative network of estuarine and coastal monitoring stations to match this system. However, the gap will be filled by ETC-Water in collaboration with the Marine Conventions through the Inter Regional Forum – a gathering of all the European Marine Conventions covering all European Seas as well as the Arctic, Black and Caspian Seas.

This reflects the wider geographic area now covered by the Topic Centre, which includes the accession countries and the Balkan states. Agreements are also being negotiated with the Russian Federation and the Newly Independent States of Europe, Transcaucasia and the central Asian republics. This will bring increased participation to around 45 countries in total.

With so many countries now involved who is responsible if a pollution incident happens in one country and then affects another?

According to Tim Lack, at WRc, who manages the ETC-Water programme, ‘The polluter is ultimately and legally responsible. For instance, the owner of an industrial installation, mine or sewage treatment plant is responsible for the clean up costs if they cause a river to be polluted.’

‘Operationally, however, there is usually an emergency system developed under the international RBD such that the pollution regulatory authority in the upstream country alerts the downstream countries about the timing, size and potential impact. This system is often automatic and telematic, or Internet based. Both the Rhine and Danube have good well-functioning accident and emergency warning systems,’ added Tim Lack.

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