Government responds on river basin planning

The government has summarised and responded to comments on its guidance to the Environment Agency on river basin planning under the water framework Directive. One of the most contentious issues is the proposed standard for phosphorus in rivers.

The Environment Department (DEFRA) has released a summary of responses to its consultation on the second volume of guidance on river basin management planning.1 When finalised, the guidance will help the Environment Agency develop the six-year river basin plans required under the EU water framework Directive.

The consultation was held in February (ENDS Report 398, pp 47-48 ). It covered some crucial areas of the Directive, including the water quality standards to be adopted, what to do when meeting targets is infeasible and the meaning of "disproportionate costs" - a judgment allowing the use of lower standards than the Directives’ overarching aim of ‘good ecological status’.

  • Water quality standards: Water companies Ofwat and Water UK have expressed disquiet about some of the proposed standards, particularly the standard for phosphorus in freshwaters. The element is a limiting nutrient and high levels lead to water quality problems associated with excessive plant and algal growth.

    Ofwat says the soluble reactive phosphorus standard for rivers of 120 micrograms per litre would be "one of the most onerous… in Europe". The regulator is also concerned that the evidence base for the standard is too weak.

    Too tight a standard would result in major expenditure and no benefit to water quality, the water industry argues. It also fears that farmers, responsible for some 40% of phosphate inputs according to the consultation, would not adequately address their share of the problem. While dischargers wanted less stringent standards, environmental groups tended to say that the standards proposed were too lax, DEFRA notes.

    The Department defended the phosphorus standard, saying there was "a good match" between the standard and biological classifications of water bodies. However, it adds that site sensitivity and evidence of harm will be taken into account in deciding the response to any breaches.

  • Extending deadlines versus less stringent objectives: The consultation asked whether the Environment Agency should set less stringent standards or extend deadlines where standards cannot be met immediately. Extending deadlines was more popular with respondents, particularly where time is needed to improve certainty about the state of the water body or where good ecological status can be achieved eventually.

    DEFRA plans to issue the Agency with guidance on when it might be better to extend deadlines or set lower standards.

  • Disproportionate costs: The Directive allows exemptions where costs of achieving good ecological status are "disproportionate". Most respondents agreed it was important to take into account distributional impacts - who would be paying and whether they could afford it. But environmental organisations including WWF, RSPB and the Government’s nature conservation watchdog Natural England were foremost in adopting counter arguments.

    These included concern over costs being loaded on to water bills and concern that much of the burden was already being shouldered by the water industry. There were also disagreements over whether the Directive allowed making exemptions on grounds of distributional cost considerations.

    The government responds that its reading of the EU guidance is that distributional reasons are acceptable in assessing disproportionate costs and that it will update the guidance accordingly.

  • Impact assessment: The regulatory impact assessment compared two implementation scenarios. The first would make all feasible water quality improvements as soon as possible without regard to disproportionate costs. The second would adopt a phased approach, making full use of the disproportionate costs exemption. The latter option was shown to involve lower costs and a proportionate level of benefits, and was strongly favoured by most respondents.