Water Framework Directive – The case for thoughtful reform

Water Framework Directive – The case for thoughtful reform

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency gave a speech in early August where he praised the role of “good regulation”. In it Sir James highlighted the positive impact that regulation stemming from the Water Framework Directive (WFD) has had on driving water quality and environment improvements across freshwater bodies in the UK and EU. But he singled out the “one-out-all-out” principle that the WFD uses to assess the overall condition of waterbodies as “a candidate for thoughtful reform”.

With much EU legislation now set to be repatriated to the UK, the attention of George Eustace, Sir James, and others across government are turning to the opportunity to improve those areas of legislation that could be made more relevant to a UK context.

Sir James emphasised that there is a lot of EU-derived law that should be kept as is, but he suggested the EU Floods Directive as one that could reasonably be repealed. Given that the UK already had a much more modern and comprehensive approach to flood risk assessment, mapping flood risk, and developing flood risk management plans than are required under the Floods Directive.

He noted that the WFD is not perfect either, and that there were two key problems with the ‘one-out-all-out’ principle. Firstly, that it can underplay where rivers are in a good state or where improvements have been made to those that aren’t. Secondly, that it can force regulators and others to focus time and resources on indicators that may not make much difference to the actual water quality, or where we realistically cannot achieve one of the criteria.

This point is best demonstrated by a typical watercourse that passes through a mixture of rural and urban landscapes. The condition of the watercourse in all elements in its rural areas may be excellent. However, if a short section that cannot be rectified, perhaps due to its flood defence function within a small town, it may lead to that entire watercourse failing, despite the indicators in the vast majority of its length being in an excellent condition.

The unintended consequence of such a ‘fail’ or lack of recognition can be that the ‘excellent’ sections of that watercourse are then neglected in favour of another watercourse where full compliance can be more easily achieved. This is not supportive of the objective of the WFD to prevent deterioration of watercourses from their baseline status.

Sir James highlighted that “Right now only 14% of rivers in England qualify for good status under the WFD, because most of them fail on one or other of the criteria. But many of those rivers are actually in a much better state than that …across England, 79% of the individual WFD indicators are at good status.”

Sir James’ speech came just weeks before the EA released the latest figures for English waterbodies’ status, which showed that not a single lake or river recently tested in England achieved “good chemical status”, and only 14% are considered to have “good ecological status”. The EA has suggested that the failure for any river to reach good chemical standards reflected improvements to its monitoring, but there are also more chemicals that now need to be monitored than previously.

ADA has written a letter to Sir James Bevan in support of his suggestions for careful reform of the WFD. It is a theme that ADA and our EUWMA colleagues have been highlighting to the European Commission for a number of years, and we shared a copy of EUWMA’s ‘Frankfurt Declaration’ of 2017 with him. These messages were also part of ADA’s recent response to the EA’s “Challenges and Choices” consultation on how to better manage our water environment under the next round River Basin Management Plans.

What is the Water Framework Directive?

The WFD set the objective of all EU waterbodies (lakes, rivers and estuaries) achieving a ‘good’ or better condition status by 2015, which has now been extended until 2027. Actions to achieve these targets have been defined and coordinated on a catchment-scale in the UK through the development of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), which are published every six years by the Environment Agency. A waterbodies’ overall condition status is judged on four categories in the directive: biological (phytoplankton, macroalgae, fish, invertebrates, etc), physical-chemical (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, ammonia, etc), chemical (concentrations of pollutants like arsenic and iron), and hydromorphological. If a waterbody fails on just one of these, then it fails overall. This is commonly known as ‘one-out-all-out’ principle.