Ofwat and Water UK slate water framework plans

Ofwat and Water UK are fiercely critical of government plans to implement the water framework Directive. Ofwat lambasts the proposed "over-precautionary" water quality standards, while water firms say too much of the clean-up cost is being piled onto them.

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 ).

  • Water quality standards: The consultation asked if the Agency should adopt all standards put forward by the UK Technical Advisory Group (UKTAG) - an independent scientific body including academics and environmental regulators. UKTAG has proposed many of the quality standards for surface water defining "good ecological status" (ENDS Report 396, p 39 ).

    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.

  • Apportioning costs: Water UK said too much of the cost of applying the Directive will fall on the industry. It claimed the guidance does not fully reflect that the industry’s responsibilities are limited to "the share of [the Directive’s] work that relates to the services it provides to its customers". If the industry is expected to do more, it said, government and regulators "must be transparent about additional work they ask the sector and its customers to pay for".

    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".

  • Environmental objectives: DEFRA asked whether the Agency should be advised on whether to extend deadlines for compliance or set less stringent objectives when it is apparent that the Directive’s goals cannot be achieved by 2015.

    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.

  • CO2 emissions: Water UK claimed the guidance does not adequately consider the carbon dioxide emissions which will result from the additional water treatment required by the Directive.

    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

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