The route to good status is uncertain

Innovation is key to tackling the challenges of the Water Framework Directive, say Entec's associate director Simon Clark and the Environmental Industries Commission's director Merlin Hyman

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) sets out ambitious goals for the protection and improvement of water quality across the European Union (EU). It came into force on December 22, 2000, and represents the rationalisation and updating of existing water legislation to form a single coherent system for water management.

The Environmental Industries Commission’s (EIC) Water Pollution Control Working Group, which represents more than 80 companies supplying water pollution control technologies and services, has been actively engaged with the implementation of the directive in the UK.

EIC has lobbied for Defra to hasten implementation of the directive – rather than waiting for the last minute – and has called for directive compliance measures to be included in the next Periodic Review.

Under the directive, all inland and coastal waters in the 27 EU member states (with the exception of artificial and heavily modified water bodies) are required to reach good status by 2015, wherever technically feasible without disproportionate cost. The classification scheme includes five status categories: high, good, moderate, poor and bad. High-status waters are represented by the biological, chemical and morphological conditions associated with no or very low human pressure.

The definition of good status includes good ecological status and good chemical status supported by appropriate morphological habitat and hydrological regime. While the aims of the directive at a high level are clearly stated, how these will be delivered remains uncertain – in some cases it will be business as usual, but in others, innovation may be required.

The directive only pertains to rivers with a catchment area of more than 10km2 and lakes larger than 0.5km2 – only 31% of lakes and 7% of rivers in England and Wales.

Good status

To achieve good status by 2015, the directive requires the identification and characterisation of river basin districts in each country within which environmental targets are set. For each district, a river basin management plan must be prepared detailing the measures required to achieve the environmental objectives.

The river basin district system of management requires their definition and characterisation by member states, as well as a review of the impact of human activity and an economic analysis of water use. Programmes must be set up to monitor water status, including volume, level, flow, and ecological and chemical status. Protected areas and abstracting bodies within each river basin district must also be identified.

Member states are required to produce a management plan for each river basin district (see Ireland supplement page 8). This must be reviewed and updated every six years. The first cycle will run from 2009 to 2015. Revised management plans are therefore required in 2015, 2021, 2027 and so on.

The plans must list the environmental objectives for that district and for each water body; justify how and where alternative, possibility less stringent, objectives have been used; and summarise the programme of measures for achieving objectives.

Decisions about the use of alternative objectives must include consideration of the technical feasibility and the costs and benefits of implementing the measures. An iterative approach is therefore built in to the planning process: identify objectives, consider objectives in light of costs and benefits, reassess and consider the use of alternatives.

Complementary legislation has been developed in order to meet the requirements of the WFD. The Groundwater Directive came into force on January 16, 2007. And the Priority Substances Directive was also proposed. It “aims to ensure a high level of protection against risks to or via the aquatic environment stemming from 33 priority substances”.

The Council of Ministers reached agreement on this directive which will now go to the European Parliament for a second reading. It is not expected to be finalised until 2008.

The directive is likely to affect businesses which affect the water environment, such as those with an abstraction license or discharging directly to the water environment or sewers.

Priority substances

Following implementation of the programmes of measures in 2009, the full impact of the directive will be felt. It is likely regulators will impose additional conditions on discharge consents, and review existing consent conditions, particularly regarding priority substances.

Affected businesses might be required to improve on-site treatment of effluents before discharge into the environment, incurring financial cost.

Diffuse pollution from agriculture or run-off from industrial sites is also an important water quality issue. And it is likely that landowners and occupiers will be legally obliged to control such pollution.

There is still uncertainty surrounding how the the directives objectives are to be met. Uncertainty is likely to exist in four areas:

  • The gap that must be closed in order to meet the specified WFD objective
  • The effectiveness of measures
  • The costs of measures
  • The source of the problem

It is not particularly reassuring that the main message that is clearly evident from the Preliminary Cost Effectiveness Analysis (pCEA) of implementing the directive is uncertainty. Managing and understanding this uncertainty is, therefore, paramount in delivering efficient river basin management plans.

It is essential that the Environment Agency and Defra engage EIC and other relevant bodies in the process of moving the work forward, particularly in the consideration of innovative technologies.

When considering uncertainty in the analysis, it is important to identify whether the level of uncertainty is such that it may affect the selection of the most cost-effective measure, or combination of measures, for meeting the objectives of the directive.

To do this, the potential range of costs and effectiveness for each measure should be considered, along with a best estimate for each measure. This will form basis for the judgement that must be made.

The uncertainty should be taken into account in making those judgements through considering the following factors:

  • The risk of failing to achieve the objectives because the measures prove to be less effective than assumed, or the risk of over-achieving through the use of unnecessarily stringent measures
  • The risk of imposing unnecessary costs by rejecting a lower-cost option in favour of a more certain but more expensive option
  • The costs of the additional measures that would be required if an option was selected which later proved less effective than assumed
  • The level of stakeholder support for the different options

The EIC believes it is crucial to ensure that the costs of delivering the objectives of the directive are not overestimated and, in turn, that the benefits are not underestimated, as this will undermine the case for action.

Also, it is crucial that government identifies the potential benefits of the directive in stimulating environmental technologies.

The commission believes the measures outlined in the Preliminary Cost Effectiveness Analysis are generally based on tried and trusted technology. It says its members believe the government needs to consider ways of giving incentives to industry to explore technologies that may be able to deal with problems further towards source.

It is proposed pilot studies are carried out on developing technologies. There will also be a need to engage engineers and scientists in the process to establish UK companies as forerunners in the field, and promote UK industry in this area.

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