Water versus wildlife

Dr Stephen Bolt, head of integrated water management at ADAS, describes how environmental legislation and climate change will create a regulatory tightrope

The water industry and its regulators are increasingly under pressure to meet the

standards of strict EU legislation.

The Habitats Directive and, more recently, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) respectively aim to conserve natural habitats and ensure good ecological status of water. However, while both are commendable, they do not take into account the huge impact that climate change will have on water supplies.

Consequently, the industry faces having to make a stark choice in the future: maintain water resources or protect the environment. Regulations demand that they somehow manage the seemingly impossible target to do both.

WFD is the single most important piece of legislation concerning water resources and represents a major change in water protection. By 2015, nearly all water sources in Europe must reach a virtually pristine standard. With just a decade left to attain the targets, the water industry, in partnership with the Environment Agency, will shortly be preparing action plans to ensure compliance.

But it is not just the WFD that is putting demands on the water companies. The Habitats Directive has been in effect since 1992, and aims to promote biodiversity through conserving natural habitats and wild species.

In practice, this directive means building is a difficult and lengthy process in Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA) – and, if it is allowed, then mitigation and or compensation packages must be produced. For example, building a new water pipe in a protected area that would impact on the integrity of the site could require that site to be replicated in a different location.

Forgetting climate change

The water industry and its regulators are under heavy pressure

to build these directives into their current and long-term plans but there is a huge issue which this legislation does not allow for:

climate change.

At the top of the political and news agenda, climate change is set to alter our landscape dramatically and, if the scientists are accurate, we will see increased droughts, higher rates of evaporation and more floods. There will be a greater demand for water and the onus will be on the water industry to make the most of limited supplies.

What is more, climate change is not set to happen in some distant future; it is affecting us now and weather patterns are going to become more extreme. The industry is well aware of this and, as well as the environmental directives, will be taking climate change into account in the planning process.

But, herein lies the problem – the requirements of the WFD and the Habitats Directive are at odds with the measures that will need to be implemented to counter the effects of climate change. This conflict of interest is inevitably going to impinge upon the proposed plans and projects of the water industry.

For instance, it is predicted that the Southeast will suffer from more droughts and will have scarcer water resources in the future as a result of climate change. Given the fact that this region is so densely populated, this is a serious issue and one that will need resolving.

A potential solution to the problem is piping in water from the more water-rich parts of England. However, this option is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive in light of the Habitats Directive. Construction would be likely to require either expensive mitigation or compensatory habitats would have to be reconstructed.

This would be highly impractical and very costly. And who would pay for this expense – the water company, the government or the customer? Ultimately, it will fall to the water customer one way or another.

Another way current legislation fails to account for climate change is in the standard set under both the WFD and particularly in the Habitats Directive, where the standards that are required (in terms of species present and numbers) are set in stone. There is no apparent mechanism to recognise that such targets will inevitably change over time as temperature and rainfall patterns alter.

Indeed, the logical conclusion from the Water Framework Directive is that the programme of measures in 2009 should include ways to redress climate change (and return all controlled waters to near pristine conditions) by 2015. Very few people would consider this practicable.

A real example of the clash between the need for greater water supplies and environmental concerns is Spain’s Ebro transfer. The system of dams and pipes would have transported 1,050 hecto m3 of water per year out of the Ebro river basin into four other river systems.

The objective of the network was to boost limited water supplies in more arid parts of Spain but, following extensive protests, the proposal was shelved. We can expect to see more and more of these conflicts throughout the UK and the rest of Europe as water supplies diminish.

Agriculture will suffer

In real terms, what will be the effect of inflexible environmental legislation and climate change? One consequence will be that the quantity and quality of food produced will suffer, as agriculture struggles to obtain enough water for its needs.

The environment, farming and water supplies to the population are all demands upon our water resources. With agriculture at the bottom of the list of priorities, it may be apportioned the smallest amount of water resources.

The overall situation will worsen until we might see rivers completely dried up in the summer and lengthy droughts, with water providers in deadlock, unable to do anything to rectify the problem. We must collectively act now if we are going to prevent these serious issues becoming critical.

The WFD and the Habitats Directive need to be revisited as a matter of urgency to take into climate change and the huge impact it is going to have on our water supplies. The legislation at present is too inflexible and the water industry has its hands tied by conflicting regulations as it tries to move forward with climate-change adaptation measures because of the environmental effects they will have.

We cannot delay updating these directives. Water-industry planning is a very long business, working up to 25 years into the future. Indeed, any legislation to protect the environment should be welcomed, and certainly the WFD and the Habitats Directive are undoubtedly good steps forward. But, a long hard look at the legislation is needed to ensure a holistic approach which also considers climate change.

The message is quite clear: broaden the directives still further to allow for climate change or suffer the consequences later.

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