Way cleared at last for river quality objectives

Regulations establishing a new river quality classification system take effect in England and Wales on 10 May.1 They have finally cleared the way for the introduction of the first statutory water quality objectives (SWQOs) - although the signs are that the Department of the Environment (DoE) will keep a tight grip on how far and how fast these will be able to force river quality improvements.

The new regulations establish five classes of river quality. These are defined by reference to seven chemical parameters - dissolved oxygen, BOD, total and un-ionised ammonia, pH, dissolved copper and total zinc.

The values are identical to those proposed in a consultation paper issued by the DoE last autumn (ENDS Report 226, pp 38-39 ). The main change from those proposals is that the sixth, "dirtiest" class has been deleted, presumably because the aim is to eliminate waters of this poor quality. Detailed rules for assessing compliance with the new scheme are set out in a manual to be published by the National Rivers Authority (NRA) in May.

The classification system is not without its critics. English Nature has complained that it is inadequate to protect nature conservation interests, particularly because it lacks a parameter for phosphate, which is causing eutrophication in some wildlife sites. And angling and environmental groups are unhappy about the lack of any biological parameters, since these can point to water quality problems which may not be apparent under the chemical classification scheme.

The DoE, however, believes that a biological classification system has not been proven in practice. The same holds for water contact sports. Additional parameters may be added to the new system when suitable methodologies have been developed. Also awaited is a classification system for estuaries.

The classification scheme will be used to define the water quality standards to be aimed for on specific stretches of river. These will be incorporated in SWQOs.

The SWQOs will progressively replace the non-statutory objectives introduced in the late 1970s. Once they are in place for a particular catchment, the NRA and the Secretary of State will be under a duty to use their water pollution control powers to ensure that they are achieved "so far as is practicable."

The introduction of SWQOs has been repeatedly delayed. The Government originally said that they would be introduced immediately after water privatisation. In 1991, it promised that the first batch of SWQOs would be introduced in 1992. It made a similar promise in 1992.

The main reason for the delay has been the argument about future levels of water bills. Some river quality improvements sought by the NRA would require some investments in sewerage and sewage treatment which are not required under existing legislation, although they are implicit in many of the old non-statutory RQOs. Although the Government promised before privatisation that the non-statutory RQOs would be incorporated in the new SWQOs, worries about the political fall-out from rises in water bills caused by EC legislation led it to back-track.

Decisions about how much such "discretionary" expenditure the water companies will be required to make over the next few years are expected soon. They will have a major influence on the extent and pace of river quality improvement which the new SWQOs will achieve.

The DoE has already instructed the NRA that it does not want to proceed too rapidly with the new system. Pilot exercises in a handful of catchments are expected in the initial phase.

The system will work as follows. The NRA will make proposals for SWQOs to the DoE. If these are accepted, the Secretary of State will publish the proposals. Under section 83 of the Water Resources Act 1991 he must allow at least three months for responses. Section 213 also enables him to refer the issue to a local public inquiry.

After the responses or inquiry recommendations have been considered by the Secretary of State, he will issue a notice defining the SWQOs for a catchment and the dates by which they are to be achieved. Once fixed, SWQOs cannot be modified for five years unless the NRA - after consulting with water undertakers and other parties - requests a review.

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