River basin planning guidance released

The government is consulting on a second volume of guidance for the Environment Agency on river basin planning.

The Environment Department (DEFRA) and Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) have issued a second tranche of guidance on river basin planning.1 The guidance is intended to help the Environment Agency develop the six-year river basin management plans required under the EU water framework Directive. It was released for consultation in February and will be statutory when finalised.

The first plans for the nine river basin districts in England and Wales will be released for consultation at the end of the year. They will be published in December 2009 and last until 2015, by which point the Directive requires all water bodies to have reached "good ecological status".

The guidance sets out the standards that should be used to assess ecological quality and the circumstances under which a water body is allowed to miss the good ecological status target.

An updated impact assessment for the Directive was released alongside the consultation.2

  • Environmental quality standards: The UK Technical Advisory Group, made up of representatives from the various environment agencies, has drawn up standards for classifying the characteristics and quality of water bodies (ENDS Report 396, p 39 ). DEFRA and the WAG will consult more fully on the UKTAG’s recommendations at a later date and then incorporate them into the Environment Act 1995.

    In the meantime, they want the Agency to use the draft standards. Some standards are based on more scientific evidence than others. Where there is deviation from one of the well-supported standards - such as those for dissolved oxygen or ammonia - the Agency "should take proportional action to achieve compliance". But where the link between a chemical or physical standard and ecological quality is less clear, the Agency is advised to check the water body for signs of harm before acting.

  • Exemptions: The Agency must prevent the deterioration of water bodies and oversee measures to bring any failing to meet good ecological status up to scratch. This may involve altering the permits that it issues for abstracting water and discharging effluent and requesting action from other regulators.

    But deviations from good ecological status - or delays in achieving it - are permitted under some conditions. The guidance lays out the factors the Agency needs to take into account when considering the measures available and the case for exemptions (ENDS Report 387, pp 6-7 ).

    Heavily modified water bodies do not have to meet the same targets and there will be other cases where meeting the required status is "technically infeasible" because any problems are not understood well enough or no solutions are available. The guidance gives as an example the proposed standard for the environmental pollutant tributyl tin, which is below the current detection limit. It also says some established alien species may be impossible to remove and that the effects of sediment and some physical changes may fall into the poorly understood category.

    Extra time or alternative water quality standards are also permitted where "natural conditions" affect the rate of improvement - for example, where pollutants take some time to clear from groundwater - or where achieving the standards would entail "disproportionate" costs that outweigh the benefits.

    The disproportionate cost argument can apply to a particular problem or to the sector that would be expected to carry out the improvements. Thus an improvement that would bring costs well in excess of benefits for a specific firm, threaten its existence or run counter to the polluter-pays principle could be rejected on the basis of disproportionate cost.

    If the Agency is presented with a choice between setting an alternative target for a water body and delaying the good ecological status deadline, the government wants it to choose the latter.

  • Impact assessment: The updated regulatory impact assessment compares two scenarios.

    Under the first, all feasible improvements to water quality are made as soon as possible with no use of the provisions for disproportionate cost. This is predicted to cost businesses and regulators in England and Wales £2,400 million a year and bring benefits worth £1,300 million a year. Farmers and water companies would be the most heavily affected.

    The second scenario foresees a phased approach making full use of the disproportionate cost dispensation. Annual costs and benefits are both estimated at £900 million a year.

    Further, more detailed cost assessments will be published alongside the RBMPs at the end of the year.