Under pressure

The Water Framework Directive is arguably the most ambitious piece of European environmental legislation to date. So why is the UK falling behind the implementation timetable? Melanie Brown investigates

Time is running out for the government. Although the Water Framework Directive (WFD) came into force in December 2000, it must be transposed into member states’ national legislation by December 2003. The directive requires all inland and coastal waters to reach a minimum of “good status” by 2015. This will be achieved by establishing a structure of river basins across the EU and setting rigorous

environmental objectives for surface water and groundwater quality.

It is the first piece of legislation to link the quality of rivers and lakes with that of groundwater and coastal waters and to look at the condition of organisms living in the water as a measure of ecological quality.

Many organisations will be affected – the water industry, navigation authorities, agriculture and all businesses that have discharge consents, trade effluent licences or abstraction licences.

Although some have welcomed the directive, others have major concerns about how the planning and preparation is being carried out.

Lagging behind

In March, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced a report on the WFD, criticising the government for “a palpable lack of urgency” and “a sense of complacency” in the implementation of the directive. It urged the government to take “a much clearer lead on its implications, techniques and the costs of implementation”.

One of the report’s main concerns is the lack of data on current water quality. Without these figures, it is hard to define which policies should apply to what area to ensure that quality improves and that “good status” is reached.

A DEFRA spokesman admits that the department does not yet know what “good status” is, but says that it is working on it. And, although water quality has been improving over the past decade, reports from WWF and the RSPB suggest that water quality is not as good as the Agency and DEFRA make out.

Part of the problem is the sheer amount of work that needs to be done. The Environment Agency, which has been appointed as the competent authority, has a daunting range of tasks to undertake.

It has already identified river basin district boundaries and will provide a river basin characterisation by December 2004, including an assessment of the risks of not achieving good status in each district. This will allow an estimate of the costs and options for improving quality.

In addition, river basin management plans must be published in draft by December 2008 and in final form by December 2009. Until these are complete and good status is defined more exactly, it will be difficult to see where the water quality problems lie and how much work will be needed to tackle them. For example, it is not clear how rivers currently defined as Class A or B will equate to the good status required for the WFD.

DEFRA admits that very little ecological data has been collected for lakes and coastal waters. These gaps in monitoring data were recognised when the directive was first adopted [see EBM May 2001, p28] but do not appear to have been tackled as a priority.

Insufficient data

Industry is not impressed. Jacob Tompkins of Water UK says: “Only three of the 33 sets of data that need to be collected are currently available.” Peter Spillett, head of environment, quality and sustainability at Thames Water, comments that “a lot of monitoring needs to be carried out very quickly”. He would like to see additional costs allocated to monitoring in the current Water Industry Review, before costs are fixed until 2010.

Environment minister Elliot Morley refutes these concerns. In a recent tele-press conference, he admitted that it will be a challenge but said he is “confident that we will have enough of the information available in time”.

Another tricky area is the definition of water quality. Although the directive defines water quality in terms of chemical and ecological criteria, it is not yet clear what this will mean in practice.

The Agency is currently developing a WFD public

participation strategy to encourage stakeholders to take part in the decision-making process. The idea is to test European Commission guidance on the directive in 15 river basins across the EU.

The UK pilot, in the Ribble River Basin, is exploring methods of engaging regional and local stakeholders from business, industry, wildlife, environmental and farming organisations in the river basin planning process. The Agency hopes to be able to transfer experience gained in the Ribble pilot to other catchments.

But once again, it appears to have been started too late. Compared to other EU members, the UK is lagging behind. Paul Mullord of British Water says that the UK has made a sluggish start to implementing the directive: “We thought that we knew more than we did and therefore we were slow to get a pilot study underway,” he says. “Now we are behind other European countries.”

Tompkins believes that the scale of the project is too small. “Pilots in other countries are evaluating every article in the directive, not just stakeholder participation,” he says.

Costs to industry

Then there is the expense. Comments on the three consultation papers since 2000 have all highlighted particular concerns about the cost to industry and its customers. The third consultation paper suggests that annualised costs of mitigating point source pollution to water could be between £192m-704m/year.

As Tompkins points out: “If the groundwork for the directive is not done properly, the consumer will end up paying though higher water bills. The timescale for implementing the directive is very tight and there has not been sufficient preparation or involvement of the water industry.

“No one has asked the water companies for any data and the Water Bill going through Parliament at present does not even mention the directive.”

Spillett is also concerned about inadequate consultation of the water industry, which he says is not involved in strategic planning meetings, despite its considerable experience of water quality monitoring. He thinks that DEFRA is playing down the costs of the directive.

Thames Water has conducted its own cost analysis and believes that implementation costs will be higher than the current DEFRA estimates, which do not include intermittent discharges.

It is worried that the Environment Agency has insufficient resources to deal with the tasks required by the directive and that additional implementation costs will have to be picked up by the water industry.

Daughter directives

The Chemical Industries Association (CIA) has additional concerns – that insufficient attention is being paid to consultation with industry on the daughter directives on groundwater and priority substances.

The CIA and the Association of Electricity Producers are also anxious about the prospect of an absolute ban on the discharge of priority substances, which they believe will be very difficult to achieve in practice.

Implications for agriculture

One of the main aims of the directive is to tackle sources of diffuse pollution such as nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertilisers, livestock manure and pesticides. The Agency is looking for additional powers to do this.

A review of diffuse pollution from agriculture currently being undertaken by DEFRA, the Agency and English Nature is trying to identify measures for tackling this problem cost-effectively through voluntary initiatives, economic instruments or legislation.

Agri-environmental schemes, which provide payments to farmers in return for following specific practices that protect the environment, could contribute to solving this problem.

However, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is not convinced that DEFRA realises the true cost of implementing the directive.

The current estimated figure from DEFRA in the third consultation is £938m-£2.4bn. “Voluntary initiatives are more productive and more likely to encourage farmers to become involved in the implementation of the directive as stakeholders,” says NFU environmental policy advisor Maeve Whyte. “For example, the Voluntary Initiative for Pesticides aims to educate farmers to grade their environmental performance and improve their practices.


Secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs Margaret Beckett has ultimate responsibility for the implementation of the directive in England and Wales, and naturally the government refutes suggestions that it is behind schedule. It claims to be proceeding “with all urgency” and to be on course for transposing the directive in December.

A third consultation paper has just been published (August 2003). It includes the draft regulations that will transpose the directive into English law and a more detailed timetable of key implementation steps.

However, without accurate data with which to define pollution and quality parameters, businesses will be unable to plan and costs will start to rise.

The government is beginning to wake up to the need to prepare for the Water Framework Directive. However, it clearly needs to improve its consultation procedures, ensure that stakeholders are more closely involved in the planning process. The pressure is on.

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