The water framework directive was adopted by the EU Council of Ministers on 12 September 2000. The impact of the legislation which will flow from this directive on water management is likely to be similar to the effect that the IPPC directive is having on waste and contaminated land management. The emphasis is moving strongly towards integrated approaches based on environmental and ecological objectives, rather than limited ‘engineering’ targets – the “fix it a bit at a time” approach. Experts from WRc are convinced the directive will significantly impact British industry over the next 20 years as water resource protection in the UK develops.

UK groundwater legislation is not a modern invention. The early Victorians had a dawning recognition of the links between public health and decaying matter, and the first laws can be traced back at least as far as the Cemeteries Clauses Act of 1847. Over the intervening century and a half, water supply protection legislation has developed and improved. The groundwater directive, introduced in 1980, was designed to protect groundwater from direct and indirect discharge of pollutants. Following a period of wide consultation, the government believed, at the time, that existing UK legislation covered the requirements of the directive. Increasing awareness of the vulnerability of groundwater was reflected in the more stringent regulations introduced under the Environmental Protection Act, in particular the waste management (licensing) regulations of 1994, which fully implemented the groundwater directive requirement for waste management activities.

Extending protection

The introduction of the nitrate directive, in 1998, and the groundwater regulations, in 1999, extended groundwater pollution controls to a wider range of industrial, commercial and agricultural enterprises. Many of the businesses affected have little or no direct experience of compliance with such regulations and, in particular, the possible need for prior investigations to support their applications for discharge consents. Subsequent surveillance of the groundwater, after the permit is granted, will be needed to demonstrate that no harm is taking place.

The water framework directive takes these regulations one stage further. The main concerns to industry arising from the directive are that where the company has existing authority to discharge wastewater, there is no assurance that this authority will continue in an unmodified form. The Environment Agency (EA) will in future be required to regularly review the state of river catchments and to make adjustments to permits, in the light of current circumstances. In addition, licences to abstract water will be more highly regulated. The EA will regard each water catchment as a dynamic system, rather than looking at individual situations in isolation. Interactions will to be taken into account between the streams, rivers, springs and groundwater – wherever water quality is affected. The framework directive is aimed at providing as much ‘good’ quality water as possible.

In practice, this could mean water quality is first assessed at the point of the most downstream gauge of each river basin. If water quality is poor at this point, then tests may be carried out systematically working up the river and its tributaries, looking at industrial, agricultural and urban impacts on the river catchment along its route. This will have a significant effect on industry.

Before a company sets up or modifies a process it will have to satisfy the EA that it has assessed the potential impact on the water catchment, on the basis of which limits will be placed on the company’s discharge permit. This level of vigilance will now be required all industries. Companies will need to show how they are going to comply with the EA’s requirements before instigating or changing any process. This authorisation once granted will be renewed at intervals, and may be adjusted if necessary. The renewal will take account of discharges upstream and of the water quality downstream. This may affect a company’s authorisation and it could be required to improve its processes to comply with new restrictions. All this has important cost implications.

The waste and nuclear industries are already required to practice this level of vigilance and make allowances in their business plans. Now the rest of industry must catch up. The directive is intended to level the playing field, subjecting all companies to the same restrictions, with extra costs being incorporated into the product price or paid for through increased business efficiencies.

There is currently no baseline for the EA and companies to work from. So WRc is undertaking a scoping study for the EA to look at the extent to which available information will enable the EA to answer basic questions, such as what activities are having a long-term effect on the water basin? To achieve this, the EA needs to know the quality of the river flow data, for instance how much of the volume on the river at a given point is from each tributary; what the seasonal variance and quality of that water is and what proportion of the flow is due to groundwater. It is also necessary to be able to determine what proportion of contamination comes from each water source and to identify where the pollution sources are located. Once this is known, the other tenet of the new directive, the polluter must pay, can be enforced. This well-known concept will now apply to the pollution of water courses too, in a more systematic way.

The directive sets a reporting target on member states and in order to meet these deadlines, work must start now to set the baseline against which improvements can be measured. The work WRc is carrying out will identify the gaps in current knowledge, enabling the EA to decide what further research is needed.

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