The UK's River Ribble crosses national parks, agricultural land and industrial towns, making it ideal for a pilot study for the country's most significant water legislation yet. Bernadette Redfern investigates.
Up and down the Ribble canoeists race each other along unpredictable channels, anglers fish and pleasure craft cruise alongside the picturesque river banks.
But behind this tranquil setting is a flurry of activity. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) - the biggest piece of legislation to enter the UK water industry - is being integrated into the legal system and it all starts at the Ribble.
The WFD requires water management by river basin rather than in terms of administrative or political boundaries, each having a river basin management plan (RBMP). At a general level the objective is to provide protection in terms of aquatic ecology, unique and valuable habitats, drinking water resources and bathing waters. In meeting this, everyone who has an impact on a river has to be identified and engaged in planning.
In the Ribble region local landowners, businesses and environmental groups are being identified and mapped as part of a strategy to test key aspects of the directive - the RBMP and public consultation.
It is one part of an eight strand WFD implementation strategy which also covers river basin characterisation; river basin planning; programme of measures;
priority and other specific polluting substances; environmental monitoring, classification, assessment and reporting; business review; and communications and information systems.
The Ribble pilot supports the other programme teams by enabling them to test their findings practically. Alongside this the study will feed results to European-wide research for a deadline of June 2004.
Selection of the Ribble for the UK pilot can be attributed to its diversity. Running from the unspoilt Yorkshire Dales through Clitheroe and Preston and discharging into the Irish Sea, the river flows through both urban and rural areas. 'There is a good mix of issues, from water quality to ecology, ' says Peter Fox, who manages the pilot for the UK Environment Agency.
At first, the Agency along with Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) thought that after considerable investment in helping the European Union to draft the WFD and providing guidance for the implementation strategies, its resources were best directed towards actual implementation.
After some hard lobbying, however, the importance of carrying out a pilot study to support national policy development was ultimately recognised. The UK won the pilot in December 2002, a year behind other European sites.
Among the campaigners for a pilot was the Mersey Basin Campaign (MBC), one of the stakeholders now working closely on the study. MBC was established 18 years ago with government backing and a long term vision to improve water quality in the region, encourage waterside regeneration and engage the general public. The Ribble became part of its remit after requests from local steering groups.
The Agency is likely to become the sole competent authority charged with implementing the WFD in England and Wales, and so has the task of interpreting its requirements. A national programme is under way to develop its technical capacity and ability to provide generic guidance on implementation.
The first phase for Ribble involves identification of the different water bodies. 'This is the starting point for defining the nature of the river, ' says MBC research and information manager Amanda Wright. Pressures, impacts and economies of water use must be assessed along with consideration of users and compilation of a register of protected areas, she says. In simple terms this will enable the status of the river to be accurately described and measured against environmental objectives.
Inhabitants of the Ribble basin will be fully consulted.
'Delivering environmental improvements requires long term behavioural change by the public, ' says Fox.
MBC policy adviser Caroline Riley is compiling a list of stakeholders for the Ribble as a base point for public consultation.
'There are almost 1,000 relevant organisations, ' says Riley, from national organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, English Nature and trade body Water UK to landowners and businesses.
Stakeholders will be invited to discuss their interests, with suggestions and problems aired via newsletters, information sessions and conferences.
The main challenge for the EA in undertaking the pilot study is that it is entering uncharted territory.
'It's the first of its kind' says Fox. However he is confident that the integrated approach and concerted team efforts will ensure its success.
INFOPLUS For further information on the Mersey Basin Campaign visit:
www. merseybasin. org. uk