Water Framework Directive divergence dispute: What we know so far

DEFRA says that no decision has been made to diverge from EU standards on water quality monitoring, but ENDS understands that from 2025, results from legally required testing under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) will no longer be used as the national indicator of water body health in England. Here is what we know so far.

Scientist examining water samples. Sources - GettyImages

What is the WFD?

The WFD has been the main law for water protection in Europe since 2000. It sets out rules to halt the deterioration in the status of EU water bodies and sets targets to achieve good ecological and chemical status for Europe’s rivers, lakes and groundwater. 

It was transposed into English law in the 2017 WFD regulations after Brexit. Under the law, the government must produce a full suite of data on the ecological and chemical health of waterways every six years, to inform its river basin management plans, the last full suite published in 2019 and the next due by 2025. 

As per the last comprehensive set of WFD results, from 2019, 14% of rivers were in good ecological health and none met standards for good chemical health. The latest dataset, published this year using 2022 data, did not include testing on the chemical status of waterways, and drew criticism for the way it was presented – without any press or NGO briefing. 

READ MORE: Murky new data indicates state of waterways is still well off target

The Water Framework Directive originally required all European surface water – lakes, rivers, transitional and coastal water, and groundwater – to reach “good status” by 2015, however this has been continually extended. 

Now, the government’s objective for 2027 is to have 2,662 water bodies achieve a “good” ecological status. However, as per the partial dataset published over the summer, only 587 water bodies achieved this status. 

READ MORE: Why England’s rivers will remain polluted with toxic chemicals until 2063

Is the government planning to scrap it? 

It was reported by the Guardian last week that the government plans to diverge from the EU’s standards for monitoring water quality as set out in the WFD. 

ENDS understands, after speaking to NGOs who attended a private briefing on upcoming changes ahead of WFD 2025, that the government is still planning on producing and publishing the 2025 WFD data as per its legal requirement. The EA reiterated this in a blog post published this morning.

The WFD 2025 data will still be a complete set and will be used to provide a baseline for 2027 river basin plans, according to an Environment Agency slide seen by ENDS from the stakeholder meeting. 

However, multiple independent sources who attended the meeting told ENDS that due to budget constraints,the assessments for each water body may be based on samples taken from fewer points in order to maximise cost-effectiveness. 

DEFRA has denied that this will be the case, and has said no budget cuts are forecast. 

An EA spokesperson told ENDS that it is “normal practice” to monitor different sites as has always been the case for WFD monitoring, and the focus will be on understanding the local impact of “chronic pressures” on the environment.

Will testing be less frequent?

The Guardian reported that after the WFD was transposed into English law the government removed the requirement to conduct annual tests, however it has never been the case that annual tests were legally required. The legal requirement is for testing to be carried out at least every six years. 

Between 2009 and 2015, annual testing was carried out by the government. Then, from 2016 the government moved to publishing results every three years. 

In 2019, monitoring funding was reportedly reduced with “carefully targeted” testing taking place instead – according to EA slides seen by ENDS. This testing was then used to inform the 2021 River Basin Management Plans. 

Between that time, the testing was used for national communication of water improvements, however the change is that starting from the 2022 partial dataset these results are not going to be used as a national indicator.

A timeline for post 2025 was not given.  

What will the new national indicator of water body health be based on?

In the Guardian article, it was suggested the government will be using its “own, as of yet undisclosed methodology to assess river health” going forward. However, sources present at the meeting told ENDS that the government plans to move away from using the WFD indicators as national indicators and is instead planning on using indicators from its Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment Programme (NCEAP), as presented in a policy paper in October.

Part of this includes the River Surveillance Network – this is not a new measure, but a project first reported on by ENDS in 2020. This is not currently intended to replace the WFD, but instead will be a separate measure alongside it and used for national communications, a government spokesperson said.

Concerns were raised to ENDS about whether this will make the 2025 data less comparable to the 2019 data, making a test of what improvements have been made more difficult. 

READ MORE: ‘Important gaps’: Murky new data indicates state of waterways is still well off target

For example, updated raw data can be accessed from 2022 using the government’s catchment data explorer, however it is difficult to get an overview of the figures without complex data analysis. 

An EA spokesperson has told the ENDS that the 2025 classifications will be shared in the same way that they were in 2019 and previously, and “many sites will be used in both 2019 and 2025”. 

They also said that monitoring is “risk based, targeted at areas and elements that are at the highest risk or where pressures are greatest” and so not all elements in all water bodies are tested in every classification round.

What about future changes to the WFD?

The recent update does not necessarily mean that future divergence from the EU WFD is not still in the pipeline. 

DEFRA previously set out in the Plan for Water that it wants to “make sure a clear and robust framework underpins our whole management of the water system.”

This, a DEFRA spokesperson told ENDS, “will include a review of the implementation of the Water Environment Regulations 2017 whilst retaining our objective to restore 75% of water bodies to good ecological status.” 

DEFRA confirmed that any future changes would be “fully consulted on in the usual way”.

What do stakeholders think? 

Janina Gray, deputy chief executive of Wildfish, said: “The EA has confirmed that it will not be keeping to the same suite of monitoring sites for WFD 2025 as it has in previous years and they will no longer be producing national statistics- they will instead target local communications.

“These decisions will make WFD results less comparable and impossible for the public to track changes in the health of our nation's water bodies over time. The Defra blog yesterday confirmed ‘one out, all out’ will stay, which is vital to improving river ecology, but this must be accompanied by national transparency on the state of our rivers if the government is serious about stopping the rot.”

Campaigners have expressed concerns that environmental rollbacks, including on water quality testing, could be outlined in the King's Speech next week. 

Founder and chairman of River Action UK, Charles Watson, has told ENDS that he is "deeply concerned and [has] a deep sense of dread about what the government is sending our way.”

READ MORE: Further environmental rollbacks expected in the King’s Speech

He said he “has reason to believe” a new package on how the government will be assessing water quality can be expected in the King's Speech next week.

When asked about the concerns raised in the Guardian article about the future of the WFD, he said: "The reality is they have delayed publishing updated data on whether they are meeting environmental targets as long as they possibly can, both changing the goals and moving the goalposts.”

Ash Smith, founder of the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) campaign group, said: “The idea of scrapping the European Water Framework Directive will be attractive to an agency that will then be able to distance itself from historical comparison, exclude itself from benchmarking with the rest of Europe, and effectively redefine today's bad results as good, not through improvement but by simply by creating a more favourable methodology; one which allows more failure and therefore reduces pressure on the polluter and the regulator - and of course, government. 

“What other reason could there be to ditch something that works and has helped lead to the current public outcry against the sewage pollution crisis?””

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “Improving water quality is one of our highest priorities. We work through plans established under the Water Environment Regulations to guide our permitting and enforcement. This work must be driven by a clear evidence base and we are working with partners to provide better information to enable this, including more real-time data.

“The next comprehensive update of classifications in all water bodies will be 2025.  No significant changes to the classification methodology are planned – including changes to one-out all-out. Every single water body will receive a classification.”