River basin management plans creep into life

The government has approved final river basin management plans across the UK. But NGOs despair over their complexity and lack of ambition, and say they fail to make the most polluting sectors pay.

The environment department (DEFRA) and devolved administrations approved publication of final river basin management plans by the environment agencies on 22 December, nine years after publication of the EU Water Framework Directive.

They mark the start of a new era in water management and see the focus shift to achieving ‘good ecological status’ or ‘good ecological potential’ in heavily modified waters by 2015. When they are too expensive, technically infeasible or made impossible by natural conditions, a deferred deadline of 2027 may apply.

The mechanism will be through three six-yearly planning cycles, with the first of just kicked off. Each will include programmes of measures to investigate and improve water quality, which will be carried out by stakeholder groups including farmers, the water sector, firms, councils and highways agencies.

The Environment Agency has published ten reports covering English and Welsh river basin districts. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has published two, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency three.1,2,3

Approving the plans, environment secretary Hilary Benn announced £1m for the Environment Agency for water quality inquiries over the next three years and a 50% rise in funding to tackle agricultural pollution in priority catchments to £7.5m.

The plans are lengthy, and have been criticised as inaccessible to anyone but the technical specialist. Interested members of the public are unlikely to be able to use them to find out about water quality improvements planned for their local rivers (ENDS Report 410, pp 5-6).

Green NGOs including the RSPB and WWF, both members of the Our Rivers Campaign, condemned the plans, saying they "lack ambition and fail to adequately identify the pressures causing failure at a water body level or lay the cost of cleaning up… on those most responsible". The major causes of poor water quality are physical modifications for flood prevention and urbanisation, water sector discharges/abstractions and agriculture, but water firms and their customers will be paying over 80% of the costs.

The figure is backed by an RSPB analysis of DEFRA’s own regulatory impact assessments with each river basin plan. This shows that nationally, the long-term costs to the water sector are almost £250m in present value terms. The costs borne by the agency are £39m and central government £10m. The costs to other sectors, such as agriculture, transport and local government rarely exceed £0.5m. The figures amplify concerns made by Water UK, NGOs and the Consumer Council for Water (ENDS Report 416, p 20).

The agency’s head of land and natural environment Pam Gilder, who is managing the river basin management planning process, agreed that the current plans focus mainly on water companies’ activities, but countered: "This is a three-cycle process and the premise is that all sectors will play their part."

The agency will produce annual progress reports on river basin planning using the Water Framework Directive ecological classification, Ms Gilder said, which was used to report 2008 results last September. The general quality assessment (GQA) classification system will be dropped this autumn, after the 2009 results are reported.

Despite great gains in water quality since privatisation 20 years ago, there is a long way to go to meet the directive’s standards. Although 76% of rivers in England and Wales are rated fair or better under GQA, only 26% meet the ‘good ecological status’ threshold. Scotland fares rather better. Some 63% of water bodies north of the border already meet the directive’s standards.

In England and Wales, the agency expects that the improvement delivered by the first round of river basin plans will be a modest 5% of waters. It expects 9,500 kilometres of rivers to ‘improve’, but this may not affect overall compliance as waters must meet all quality requirements to meet the directive’s target.

The RSPB is critical of the complexity and lack of clarity in the agency’s approach. It believes a summary of pressures and sectors responsible for quality failures would be a helpful addition to the plans. Currently, the plans are neither strategic documents nor clear indicators of the work required in each catchment it says.

The NGO also has doubts about how plans are drawn up. "Essentially what the agency has done is to ask stakeholders what they can do to improve water quality. But these conversations have had limited success, because it is difficult for the willing to suggest action when the extent and type of pressures have not been identified or mapped, while polluters have few incentives to act voluntarily," said Ralph Underhill, RSPB’s river basin planning officer.

The RSPB and WWF are working closely with Environment Agency and other stakeholders on a pilot river basin planning project in the river Kennet catchment, in Wiltshire and Berkshire. NGOs hope the more ‘bottom-up’ approach will produce a better result than achieved by the agency’s modelling methods.

Ms Gilder promised the agency intended to learn from the results, but Mr Underhill cautioned that this was just one catchment. Its findings may not be universally relevant and pilots may be required across a range of representative catchments.

Some 69% of waters in England and Wales are likely to fail the directive’s standards in 2015, the plans show. They set ‘alternative objectives’ in each case, including a justification and reasoning.

The RSPB has categorised the 8,000 plus reasons for failure cited by the Environment Agency in the plans. The top four are, in order of importance: physical modification, high phosphate levels, "unknown causes" and high ammonia levels.

The most common justification, cited in over 50% of cases, was doubt that a failure of standards was actually occurring due to monitoring or other uncertainties. The next most frequent was where the cause of failure was understood, but there was doubt about whether improvement measures would be cost effective.

Ms Gilder says that the agency’s programmes of investigations over the first years of the first planning cycle will reduce uncertainty. However, NGOs fear the investigations will result in a progression from one uncertainty to another. This would quite possibly culminate in a conclusion that improvements are not cost effective and no action to improve waters would be taken.