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 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.