What is the Water Framework Directive?

Before we get started you can see the Environment Agency information on the Water Framework Directive (WFD) via this link. It might provide some useful context if you’re not familiar with the WFD. The DEFRA website also has some useful information here and here.

The technical stuff

The Water Framework Directive requires the waterbodies (both surface and groundwater) of all European Union member states to achieve ‘good status’. The Directive also requires that no such waterbodies experience deterioration in status. Good status is a function of good ecological status and good chemical status, as defined by a number of quantifiable quality elements:

Biological – fish, invertebrates, macrophytes, etc

Hydromorphological – channel morphology, channel planform, lateral connectivity, etc

Physio-chemical – phosphate, nitrate, dissolved oxygen, etc

Chemical – pollutants, heavy metals, etc

The Water Framework Directive works on the one-out all-out policy, meaning that if an individual quality element is not achieving good status for a particular watercourse then the entire waterbody is classified as failing.

The long-term view

The aim of the Directive is to improve the ecological condition of Europe’s waterbodies. Over time the Directive should enhance our environment more generally, in much the same way that the Habitats Directive that was introduced in 1992 has assisted the recovery of protected species such as water voles and otters. The key difference between the Water Framework Directive and the legislation that preceded it is the focus upon waterbodies, which are essential ecologically, economically and culturally.

What this means for river managers

The Water Framework Directive empowers national regulators to manage their rivers properly and to ensure that action can be taken against those that contravene the legislation. Any works that are likely to effect a waterbody’s Water Framework Directive status will require a compliance assessment explaining how any effects will be mitigated against. With river restoration schemes the compliance assessment allows for an independent quality assurance check to make sure that the intended improvements are feasible, appropriate and will not have unexpected consequences. With other schemes the compliance assessment is intended to get applicants thinking about ecological concerns and how they can be managed.

The catch

The Water Framework Directive has given organisations like the Environment Agency the structure and means to better manage our waterbodies. Yet realistically the aims of the WFD will not be met in time – the original deadline for meeting WFD objectives was 2015.  With recent problems arising from flooding, and a strong desire to facilitate financial growth, the foremost river management concerns have an economic and livelihood imperative, rather than an ecological one. What’s more, balancing the often contradictory river management concerns is a challenge – for example the WFD requires improved lateral connectivity between rivers and their floodplains, yet we should also protect people and properties from flooding.

In to the future

The Water Framework Directive is here and here to stay. It presents a challenge but also an opportunity. For long enough we’ve needed a tool to enforce change within our often heavily modified and degraded watercourses. Although there will continue to be teething problems, ultimately the legislation will help improve our environment. I’m optimistic that in 20 years time we will look back at the adoption of the Water Framework Directive as a watershed moment  (get it?) in the successful management of our rivers.

About Trevor Bond

A Geomorphology Technical Officer at the Environment Agency. All opinions expressed herein are my own and do not necessary reflect the views of my employer.
This entry was posted in Ecology, Geomorphology, Hydrology, Water Framework Directive and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What is the Water Framework Directive?

  1. John Roberts says:

    Hang on! WWF were in the process of taking you to court in 2011 due to you not doing enough for WFD, before an agreement was reached for £110m to be given over to the CRF, which I know understand you have chopped. The EA have always had the duty to improve maintain and develop, it is only the threat from the Commission that has actually got them to take that obligation seriously, and even then the EA has pushed the end date out to 2027. There are even those in the EA that are working on the assumption that the directive will not even be effective by the time the rivers are finally assessed, because we will be out of the EU. The EA have behaved very badly over WFD and the other EU directives so far, and what was expected to be a huge move forward is being watered down at every event. Very badly done and nothing to crow about pal.

  2. Trevor Bond says:

    Hi John. Thanks for your comments on my post. I agree with you that there is much work to be done by the Environment Agency with respect to the WFD. I’ve only been in post for four months, but in that short time it has become clear to me that we can improve on our WFD delivery. Absolutely key to that is engaging stakeholders such as yourself on figuring out why we’re not doing as well in certain areas as you think we should be and how we can address that; and I would welcome any further comments you have with respect to these specific points.

    With this said, I should also say that there are many reasons for the Environment Agency to be credited on their approach to WFD. We have the River Basin Management Plans (http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/planning/33240.aspx), there is external guidance such as Clearing the Waters (http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/sectors/116352.aspx) and the Mitigation Measures Manual (http://evidence.environment-agency.gov.uk/FCERM/en/SC060065.aspx) and the Environment Agency have sought to recruit individuals such as myself (and WFD Catchment Delivery Manager’s such as Matt Butcher – check out his blog http://essexrivers.org/) with technical expertise to assist WFD delivery.

    When I originally blogged this post I hadn’t intended for it to be perceived as me ‘bigging-up’ the Environment Agency and I apologise if that is how it has been interpreted. However it has stimulated an interesting discussion. How do the organisations responsible for WFD delivery implement it? How do we incorporate stakeholders into the conversation? What knowledge and resources are available outside of the statutory bodies to assist in delivery? Are these even the important questions – should we be starting with something simpler?

  3. John Roberts says:

    You cannot deliver it. The Agency has become politically motivated. Its staff are being told by government to facilitate harmful practices (Hydropower) and ignore appeals from the farming lobby to have land taken from NVZ’s. 2027 is way too far off to worry about the reckoning. It was clear WFD was going to be implemented in 1997, and yet wasn’t enacted in England until 2003. The EA wasted a further two years by doing nothing and then started on the RBMP’s, which absorbed it until 2009 and now with the review . WFD isn’t a desk top manipulation of figures. It is a genuine attempt by the Member States to raise the bar of WQ across the EU. There is no trust in the Agency that any current improvements so far weren’t just the product of an initial downgrading. It has sold out and is overdue for a change. Will the plan to join the two agencies make that happen? At least three years will be lost in the process (staff worrying about redundancies and the settling into their new rolls); it doesn’t have a price. The worrying thing is, anyone who cares about the above is out after 3yrs.

  4. Pingback: » Pasties, plastic bags and public engagement: Greggs the Bakers’ double bonus for south Wales rivers

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