NRA's climbdown on water quality objectives

The National Rivers Authority (NRA) has watered down its proposals on statutory water quality objectives (SWQOs) following pressure from the water industry and the Department of the Environment (DoE). It has dropped plans to include biological monitoring from the statutory element of the scheme, reducing its potential for protecting aquatic life.

SWQOs are to be set on a catchment-by-catchment basis by the Secretary of State following proposals from the NRA. They will be made under section 83 of the Water Resources Act 1991, and will specify the quality goals to be achieved for particular stretches of water by specified deadlines. The improvements in effluent quality to be achieved by dischargers will be derived from the SWQOs.

The NRA's initial proposals for a water quality classification system which will be used in setting SWQOs were issued last December (ENDS Report 203, pp 10-12). Comments on the scheme were considered and revised proposals issued in October.1The original scheme consisted of a three-tier system. The first contained 11 use-related classifications covering fishery, sporting, conservation and abstraction uses, as well as aesthetic criteria. The second tier related to EC Directives, and the third comprised a new general classification based on basic chemical criteria modified by an overriding biological assessment.

All three elements were to have been statutory. But the concerns of the water industry and the DoE about the costs and practicalities of the scheme now appear to have won the day.

In its revised proposals, the NRA says that the statutory element of SWQOs should be limited to the use-related tier of the classification. The use-related classes to be included will also be rationalised, so that only fisheries, abstraction, water sports and conservation uses will now be specified.

The general classification scheme is also to be modified and will no longer consist of a single class. Instead, the NRA has proposed four separate classes, reflecting the chemical, biological and aesthetic quality of the water, together with its nutrient status.

The major result of the changes is that statutory controls via SWQOs over the biological and aesthetic quality and, in many instances, the nutrient status of waters will now be lost. This will mean that it will not be possible for anyone to seek a judicial review of the NRA or the Secretary of State for failing to ensure the achievement of these elements of water quality. Neither will, for example, be exposed to the risk of judicial censure if pollution incidents or acid rain destroy river life, or if litter, foaming or odours reduce its amenity value.

In the case of nutrient levels, only sites designated under a "special ecosystem" use class will be protected from eutrophication by means of SWQOs. This status is likely to be restricted to certain nature reserves or Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The water industry's response to the initial consultation paper clearly influenced the NRA. The Water Services Association (WSA) argued that SWQOs should be based solely on use-related criteria. It also insisted that biological monitoring is insufficiently developed for inclusion in a statutory scheme.

There appears to be some sympathy with the latter view within the NRA, but RIVPACS, the biological model used for scoring aquatic life, has now been widely tested and is likely to achieve workable results within a few years. Making no provision for its inclusion in the statutory scheme is likely to limit its potential in protecting aquatic life.

The WSA also voiced concern about how rapidly SWQOs would be expected to be achieved. Requiring improvements in effluent quality in order to achieve compliance with SWQOs within 3-5 years would be "quite insufficient" for the completion of major projects, it said. Seven years would be more realistic. And any improvements should be timed so as to be included in the Office of Water Services' five-yearly review of the industry's investment programmes.

Meanwhile, the impetus to introduce SWQOs appears to be diminishing. The first SWQOs were due to be proposed by the NRA at the end of 1992, but are not now expected until next year. And the DoE is understood to be leaning on the NRA to test the new system in a small number of pilot catchments rather than press ahead with a major programme.

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