The Water Framework Directive: a new approach?

By Jacob Tompkins, Water UK
The Water Framework Directive (WFD) represents a new approach to water management across Europe. It aims to simplify the process of water management and will replace a number of existing water directives. It aims to classify water quality with reference to ecology rather than chemical parameters. It is also outcome based rather than driven by lists of standards and should enable a more risk based approach. The UK water industry supports the WFD and its aims, and we believe it could deliver long term sustainability for water management.

However, if the spirit of the Directive is not followed, we could end up with high costs for little environmental benefit. The key concerns of the water industry are:

Rivers are Natural Systems

If we are to deliver catchment management we must start thinking about hydrology more holistically.

In nature rivers do not exist neither do lakes or wetlands. They are not discreet units they are parts of the wider natural process of water flow and storage within the catchment. It is human language that has created the concept of discreet units. In nature a river is dynamic in space and time, it expands and contracts there is no artificial delineation between the floodplain and the river, or between riparian wetlands and the river. Likewise there are strong natural links between surface and groundwater.

Acting at the catchment scale

There is also a human presumption that floods are bad when, in fact, they are not. They are a natural catchment process and until we realise this we will not be able to reduce the impact of damaging urban floods. If our reaction to floods is to prevent them, and to use engineering to stop flooding, then we will fail as the catastrophic flooding on the Mississippi demonstrated. In order to reduce damaging urban flooding we must first accept flooding as a natural process then accommodate flooding. It should not difficult to understand that if we build houses on the floodplain they will flood.

We can apply a similar logic to water quality. If we put pollutants into the natural environment, the environment becomes polluted. The use of end-of-pipe solutions to water treatment and wastewater treatment only clean up the abstracted water and wastewater they do not clean up the natural environment, the best way to do that is to take action in the catchment to prevent the pollution.

We should start managing water at the scale of natural processes, this is the catchment. We should stop dealing with pollution though end-of-pipe approaches and stop dealing with water resources by addressing only abstraction, we need to look at problems holistically.

If we consider the whole hydrological system within a catchment we will arrive at the most cost effective sustainable solutions. We will also be able to maximise the additional benefits of the measures we take. Floods and droughts are part of the same issue. Water quality and water quantity are linked. Habitat creation and wealth creation are not conflicting needs that must be balanced, but are symbiotic.

For instance urban flood protection should not be provided through hard engineering. This approach will simply push the hydrograph peak further down the catchment. Soft engineering approaches should be used, upstream wetland creation would enhance biodiversity, reduce diffuse pollution, enhance groundwater recharge, reduce the hydrograph peak to mitigate urban flooding and lead to income generation within the catchment.

The problem is that we are asking the wrong questions, we are asking how can we protect urban centres from flooding, rather than asking how can we better manage flood events within the catchment to reduce the incidence of urban floods.

Water companies are integral to catchment management

To say that catchment management is nothing to do with water companies is absurd. We not only have a major impact on the catchment but we also rely on the natural functions of the catchment for our raw resource, where else are we going to get our water from? It is essential to the interests of the water industry/sector that we have sustainable water management. Yet this is not the case, nowhere is integrated catchment management being carried out. The current periodic review will not see large-scale introduction of catchment-based approaches, instead it will see more end-of-pipe solutions. This must change.

Change is needed if we are to implement the WFD

If the UK is going to implement the WFD effectively at the lowest cost and highest benefit, we must review the regulatory processes for the water industry, we must review the way we fund environmental protection and we must review the way we manage land use impacts on water.

Water UK

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