The Water Framework Directive: why is there so much uncertainty?

The Water Framework Directive will have a major impact on water users and the providers of water services. Due to the local level planning required by the Directive it is difficult to predict the implications on the industrial, farming and water sectors. However, the water industry is trying to establish what the potential impacts might be in order to inform the development of implementation plans. Lindsey Chalmers, a consultant at Stone & Webster Consultants, reports.

The Water Framework Directive, that entered into force in December 2000 was the culmination of over ten years of work to develop a piece of water legislation that required integrated water management at the river basin level.

Quantity and quality issues are addressed together allowing for the impact of quantity on quality to be taken into account. The Water Framework Directive forms an umbrella framework for previous water legislation by requiring that Programmes of Measures established to meet Directive requirements include those measures required under preceding Directives.

Good status

In order to achieve good chemical status, Member States are required to implement measures to reduce pollution from priority substances and phase out or cease emissions, discharges and losses of priority hazardous substances. The UK government has carried out a Regulatory Impact Assessment on the requirements for priority substances. This can be found on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) website:

Good ecological status is a situation such that the values of the biological quality elements for the surface water body type show low levels of distortion resulting from human activity, but deviate only slightly from those normally associated with the surface water body type under undisturbed conditions.

The characteristics of an undisturbed body of water vary between eco-regions. Countries may set ‘good ecological status’ conditions either using an EU typology of reference conditions (System A) or may undertake research to establish their own reference conditions (System B). The UK has opted to use system B for the majority of waters.

The Directive requires consideration of the environmental impacts of those who abstract water, discharge into water and those who use water bodies for recreational and other purposes as well as the economic value associated with each of these uses. Given the breadth of the Directive, it may be supposed that many sectors will be impacted by its implementation.

Uncertain impacts

However the extent of these impacts is still unclear. In a presentation at the Water UK Water Framework Directive Conference in May, Barbara Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency was keen to stress how far the UK had already gone in meeting the likely obligations of the Framework Directive.

In her view the Directive was consistent with existing planning and monitoring systems in the England and Wales. This contrasted markedly with the view of Pamela Taylor, chief executive of Water UK, who suggested that implementation may require a fundamental review of the land planning process, flooding and drainage operations, farming practices and water use by all sectors.

This uncertainty reflects the fact that the Directive does not specify specific measures to be taken by water users and water services; instead it sets out planning principles to be used in planning for water bodies which then determine the measures to be taken by different players.

For example, for rivers, the Directive specifies the components of river basin management planning. These include stakeholder participation in decision-making concerning river basin management and economic analysis of water uses in the river basin. The planning process will generate a series of cost-effective measures that are required for the river to achieve or maintain good status.

Until these planning processes are underway it is difficult to anticipate the activities required by the different players in each sector and for each river. The timetable for adoption, planning and the implementation of measures can be seen in the table overleaf.

Based on this timetable it could be supposed that the magnitude of actions required from water companies and companies that discharge industrial effluent in a particular river basin will begin to become clearer in 2007.

At this point the competent authority (which is likely to be the Environment Agency) should have established how far various waters are from good status, the sources of pressures on water bodies and the trends in these pressures. Where waters do not meet good status, the competent authority will need to identify the cost effective measures that must be undertaken to achieve good status. These measures will be the responsibility of farmers, industry, water companies and others.

Cost implications

In the absence thus far of river basin management plans it is difficult for water companies to assess the likely cost implications of the Water Framework Directive. However, it is safe to assume that that actions, additional to those arising from pre-existing Directives, will be required in order to achieve good status.

For example, River Quality Objectives (RQOs) which have a role in determining discharge consents, are likely to be raised in some areas in order to meet with good status. The Environment Agency currently sets objectives for rivers in terms of chemical parameters ranging from ‘RE1’ which is very good quality (suitable for all fish species), to ‘RE5’, poor quality (likely to limit fish populations).

At present there are around 5,430km of river which have RE4 or RE5 status. Unless such rivers are all defined as ‘heavily modified water bodies’, to which the target of good ecological potential rather than good status applies, extensive work will need to be done to sewage treatment works and combined sewer overflows to meet higher standards.

This assumes that RE3 will be considered to be an acceptable standard for rivers. However, if rivers need to be RE2 to comply with the Water Framework Directive, this would require an upgrade of 13,250km of river, not to mention the stretches of river that are currently without classification. As well as uncertainty over the current status of a water body and the improvements necessary for good status, the extent to which responsibility for measures will lie with water companies is also a source of concern.

The price of pollution

The Polluter Pays Principle is a fundamental tenet of the Directive. This implies that those responsible for the deterioration of water courses are responsible for their improvement in some proportionate manner. As well as appealing to a sense of fairness, this principle provides a strong incentive for water users to moderate their environmental impacts.

However, it is not clear how the Principle will be advanced through the Environment Agency’s proposed route for identifying cost-effective measures which appears to be based on selecting the cheapest measure to achieve the environmental objective.

There is a concern that the most cost-effective measures may tend to be end-of-pipe solutions at sewage treatment works and combined sewer overflows, regardless of the levels of pollution arising from the activities of other water users. Requiring such solutions would add considerably to water customers’ bills without giving incentives to other sectors to reduce their environmental impacts.

The Directive allows for derogations where the achievement of good status would result in ‘disproportionate cost’. Whilst this will reduce the potential costs of the Directive it is not clear how ‘disproportionate’ will be assessed. Guidance from Europe remains vague on this, although a standard approach of comparing the costs and benefits of measures has not found favour, possibly due to the difficulty in evaluating benefits.

It is therefore uncertain how pragmatic a judgement the competent authority will wish, or be able to make concerning water bodies that are subject to extensive use.

Costs to industry

At present the water industry is trying to establish the potential requirements it might have to meet. UK Water Industry Research is undertaking a number of Framework Directive related pieces of work, including one through Stone & Webster Consultants to estimate the potential costs to the industry of the Directive ( – current projects). Although based on the timetable above the water industry may not be required to implement measures until 2009, it is of great importance that the industry feeds in to the debate at the current time.

The UK is currently developing its regulations for implementation and both the standards that are set and the approach to implementation will have significant cost implications. In addition, the timetable for the Directive does not sit comfortably with the Periodic Review process used by Ofwat. When the next round of price setting occurs in 2005, the requirements for water companies will not have been determined. However, if measures are to be completed by 2012 then investment will need to be undertaken prior to the 2010 price review.

At the Water Industry Conference in May 2002, Phillip Fletcher commenced his speech by suggesting that his only reply on the implications of the Directive for water company investment should be: “I do not know, and nor does anyone else”.

There are signs that Ofwat is now engaging with the Environment Agency to establish how the requirements of the Directive should be taken into account. However, industry is still awaiting a clear steer from Ofwat on how the implementation of the Directive, and in particular its timing, are to be handled.

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