The Environment Department (DEFRA) issued a consultation paper in February on guidance to the Environment Agency on river basin management planning in England and Wales. The process is a fundamental part of implementing the water framework Directive, which requires that all waters achieve "good ecological status" by 2015.
The consultation covered volume 2 of the guidance, including issues such as the adoption of water quality standards, and how and when various relaxations to the water framework Directive’s targets might be allowed. It also provided a regulatory impact assessment (RIA) of the Directive’s implementation (ENDS Report 398, pp 47-48 ).
However, both the water industry and Ofwat are highly critical of adopting the standards without further consideration.1,2 Ofwat said it has "serious concerns" that the standards are "over precautionary" and set with a limited evidence base and no direct assessment of ecological impact.
Ofwat especially attacked the proposed standard for phosphorus, a plant nutrient and pollutant present in sewage effluent and farmland runoff. UKTAG has proposed a limit of 0.12 milligrams of soluble reactive phosphate per litre, which Ofwat described as "one of the most onerous phosphorus standards in Europe".
This issue is a key one because large sums are spent by the water industry on phosphorus removal from sewage effluents. Phosphate stripping uses chemicals which are energy-intensive to produce, pushing up the sector’s energy bills and carbon footprint (see pp 32-36 ).
Industry body Water UK agreed, saying the standard is so tight that many waters "will never make good status", even though they have thriving fisheries.
Citing concerns about the affordability to customers, Water UK said: "The apportionment, pressures and costs associated with the water industry appear overly biased in the RIA."
It does not believe that the costs assigned to other industries are high enough. Other industries are "in general… responsible for almost all chemicals produced," it notes, apparently referring to the major costs likely to be involved in dealing with hazardous or priority hazardous substances in sewage effluent discharges.
The trade body also questioned the "relatively low cost" apportioned to agriculture. The costs of protecting drinking water abstraction sources from pollution, it complains, have not been included in the RIA.
It also argued that the exclusion of standards for protecting surface and ground water abstraction sources is "a serious omission which must be addressed".
The issue is an important one and refers to articles 4.4 and 4.5 of the Directive which allow water quality objectives to be delayed where it is apparent the timescale is "technically infeasible", "disproportionately expensive" or where "natural conditions do not allow timely improvement". The get-out is likely to be extensively used by the government in delaying compliance until 2027, the latest date permitted by the Directive.
Ofwat said extending deadlines under article 4.4, dubbed option 2 in the RIA, is more appealing than setting less stringent objectives under article 4.5, or trying to implement the Directive by 2015 - the RIA’s option 1. Extending deadlines would allow a "phased approach" and time for innovation to take place to deliver more "robust" and "sustainable" outcomes, it said.
The costings also show it will be considerably cheaper. The most cost-effective measures can be taken first, and any subsequent measures delayed until the water quality results of previous actions become apparent. The RIA puts the cost of option 1 for the water industry at £1.58 billion expressed as an equivalent annual value. The cost of option 2 is estimated at £666 million.
Ofwat said one water company that investigated the Directive’s effect on future CO2 emissions found that they would increase by around 50% due to the increased energy used in sewage treatment - particularly organic matter removal, phosphate stripping and ammonia reduction.
As the Environment Agency has a responsibility for water air and land, Ofwat concludes: "It would be perverse indeed if industry… is required to implement these energy-intensive measures unless it can be proven that they are the most cost-effective and sustainable solution."
The Agency’s own response did not mention CO2, but the original consultation document and the Directive also fail to consider it.3