Loch Ruthven RSPB Reserve, Scotland. View of loch.

The Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive is arguably the most ambitious and important piece of environmental legislation to emerge from Europe for decades.

Water Framework Directive

Although the Water Framework Directive (WFD) focuses on the protection and improvement of rivers, lakes and coastal waters, its impact will be felt throughout the catchments that feed them.

The WFD requires that Member States aim to achieve Good Ecological Status in all waters by 2015 – and, if that's not possible, it allows interim targets to be set for 2015 and 2021 with full compliance by 2027. Under all conditions, it requires that there should be no deterioration in status.

It also sets out a clear time frame of 2015 for the achievement of objectives for protected areas designated under other directives. These include designated drinking water sites and nature conservation areas of European importance (Natura 2000).

River Basin Management Plans

The actions that will be taken to improve our rivers, lakes and coastal waters to Good Ecological Status are set out in the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), which were published in December 2009.

There are 11 Regional RBMPs for England and Wales produced by the Environment Agency. Scotland has one RBMP for the Scotland River Basin District and one RBMP covering the cross-border Solway-Tweed area. 

Scotland is faring better than England and Wales in that 65 per cent of its water bodies currently have 'good' or 'better' status (compared to 27 per cent in England and Wales). Nevertheless there is a huge challenge to prevent deterioration of Scotland's rivers, lochs and coastal waters and to achieve the 2027 target.

Although the plans in England and Wales were ostensibly developed with input from regional stakeholder Liaison Panels, many participants viewed it as a failed opportunity for meaningful engagement.

More importantly, the final River Basin Management Plans were deeply flawed with failings that included:

  • Failure to identify strategic and local problems. Despite being strategic plans, the RBMPs failed to quantify the main pressures causing problems for rivers, lakes and coasts. 
  • Failure to identify actions. With little insight into pressures affecting water bodies, the plans contain few new actions. The only exceptions are water company schemes which account for more than 80 per cent of the total costs for implementing the first round of RBMPs.
  • Failure to engage with key sectors causing diffuse pollution. 78 per cent of water bodies in England and Wales have been identified as at risk of failing to meet Good Ecological Status due to diffuse pollution. Pollution from farms, roads and urban areas causes widespread damage to freshwater ecosystems and costs water customers hundreds of millions of pounds. However, in RBMPs the agricultural sector (the single biggest source of diffuse pollution) will have to pay just £11,000 per year while 'urban and transport', the other key sector causing diffuse pollution, will contribute only £2,400 per year.

Unsurprisingly, the flaws in the RBMP process will result in a very low level of improvement with just 5 per cent more water bodies projected to meet GES by 2015, up from a baseline of 27 per cent.

It is hard to conclude that the Environment Agency has succeeded in developing plans that aim to achieve Good Ecological Status in all waters by 2015.