The new European directive on water may be the biggest thing since the Roman aqueducts, or perhaps Moses striking the rock in the desert. Adrian Greeman reports on the huge challenge ahead.
The Environment Agency has been interviewing this month, taking on a new team of engineers, hydrologists, geologists, ecologists, economists, biologists, planning experts, and marine scientists. Their task - to help the UK implement the new European Water Framework Directive (EWFD) which took effect from December 2000.
The 20-strong team will have its work cut out. According to environment minister Michael Meacher, the directive is 'the most substantial piece of European water legislation ever'. It is set to transform water management and provision throughout Europe.
Each country must set up a 'competent authority' to carry it through, and that will most likely be the Agency. 'It has to be confirmed yet, ' says Paul Logan, who will head up the new Agency team as programme director, 'but it should happen shortly.'
The Agency will start by logging every significant piece of water, above ground and below it, inland and on the coast. Measurement and documenting will apply to an unprecedented range of water bodies. Nothing except the tiniest village pond or local cottage well can be missed out, from the inland water sources to the coast, and beyond that for one nautical mile out to sea.
Groundwater bodies will be defined and measured too although not quite as stringently as surface water, if only because it is extremely difficult to fully measure and determine their boundaries and movements.
Measurement and monitoring will go far beyond the chemical and bacteriological tests currently used. Chemical criteria and controls on specific processes affecting water will remain in place, but a broad sweep of biological measures is now also required, including ecological monitoring of plant and animal species and assessment of habitats. Physical water flow parameters and geomorphology must all be taken into account.
According to Jacob Tompkins policy development advisor at Water UK, which represents the interests of the water companies in England and Wales, 33 measurement indices will have to be tackled. 'Currently we fulfil requirements in three, ' he says.
The directive was introduced in December 2000 but its impact so far has been mainly at government level, in the Environment Agency and within the Department for Environment, Farming & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Eventually it will be felt by almost everyone in society. Anyone or anything that might affect water flows, from industry to house builders, farming to motorways, railways to beach huts, will need to clean up their act.
Currently, however, the legal and governmental changes needed for the directive have been going through. DEFRA is trawling all existing legislation on water to see what matches the needs of the new directive and what must be amended, or whether new legislation is required. It must become national law by the end of next year.
The department hopes that only 'secondary legislation' - changing regulatory powers within existing Acts - will be needed to implement the directive in England and Wales, though the Environment Agency wants to see some new laws passed. Scotland is likely to need new powers, to control water abstraction, for example.
A second consultation document on the changes is promised imminently from DEFRA.
Meanwhile the water companies and wider interest groups are still uncertain what will need doing. Pinning that down is one of the first priorities. No one is yet sure because the directive is deliberately flexible in its prescriptions, to allow widely differing member states to tailor their legislation to local ecologies and geographies.
'There is no point in trying to do the same things to a Scottish trout stream as you do to an ephemeral river in Spain which may be dry for several seasons, ' says Water UK's environmental and scientific adviser Rupert Kruger.
There may also be political battles to be fought over how strongly the directive is implemented, especially as it will demand substantial spending.
For the UK early cost estimates reflect the uncertainties, with a wide band of potential spending estimated between £1.9bn and £9bn over the next decade and a half. Tompkins says even that figure is a guestimate. 'No one can claim any greater precision. It could be more, ' he says.
Who will have to spend it is equally uncertain. Early estimates by WRc suggest about 40% will come from the water companies in direct infrastructure and management spending.
But the directive aims at a holistic approach to water quality, tackling for the first time wider issues like 'diffuse pollution'. Costs could be incurred by agriculture, which will have to control nitrate and phosphate fertiliser run off, or by highway authorities obliged to clean up traffic pollution, railways keeping track of pesticide use on embankments perhaps, or industry dealing with emissions of specific substances.
Even gardeners may find themselves affected.
All this uncertainty stems from the nature of the directive.
One of the first ever to be built around a clearly environmentalist programme, it sets its objectives as ecological quality targets, rather than specific proscriptions and prescriptions on industrial and economic processes and chemical discharges.
Bans and limitations on various substances and discharges are still part of the remit, in fact there are more of them and various industries will find they need to spend money to meet new limits. A list of 33 'priority substances' is also included, which must either be completely cleaned up or banned altogether.
Most of the provisions of existing water related directives, covering issues such as water abstraction, fisheries, shellfish waters, and groundwater, will also be subsumed, with past legislation being repealed or modified as the new regulations incorporate them. Eleven past directives are included in all.
But from now on, not just the state of the water in a river, lake or beach is to be measured, but the state of the river or lake or seashore itself. That includes not only the chemical purity of water but also its biological condition - from bacteria to bird populations. Physical condition must be monitored, from assessing the shape of the water body to determining the physical inputs and outputs quantitatively as well as qualitatively.
Two parts of the directive are very definite already. The first is water management. This must be geographical, based around so-called river basin districts (RBD), which will use the largest rivers as their basis. A district cannot include just part of the basin and, if necessary, will stretch across international borders. Smaller river basins, estuaries, lakes, and other water bodies will be assigned to these RBDs.
Perhaps not entirely by chance, since the UK made a substantial input to the genesis of the directive, Britain is already largely organised along these lines. The 10 major water companies fit more or less around the 10 or so major river basins in Wales and England, and the Environment Agency administrative boundaries are already pretty similar. Some modifications will be needed, most obviously to the Severn Trent district since these two rivers drain in opposite directions.
But other countries may have greater difficulties; they may previously have supplied water through municipalities for example. And they have river basins which will prove less easy to manage.
'Imagine having to cope with the Danube or the Rhine, ' says Dr Steven Bolt, environmental standards manager at Anglian Water. Not only are they huge and with major industries but they run though many countries.
The directive demands that cross border international structures be created where necessary to manage river basins in their totality. Some small interactions of this kind will be necessary even for island Britain, where it joins Eire for example, and with Scotland which has a different governmental structure.
The second definite element is the timetable. It stretches over what looks at first sight like a very long 15 year period - more given that two six year extensions will be allowable where states can show that expenditure is unreasonably high within the first period.
'It seems a long time, ' says Bolt, 'but it is really very tight and will require some heavy resources.'
Dr Bob Breach, head of quality and environmental services at Severn Trent Water, agrees. 'It is pretty ambitious, ' he says.
'There are some pretty complicated definitions and targets to produce.'
Tompkins explains: 'The target is to achieve something called 'good status' for all surface water bodies.' Each water body will be assessed on a five point scale of how far human activity has taken it from 'good' and plans will then need to be made for actions to bring it back.
Unfortunately no-one has yet pinned down exactly what is 'good' status, except that it is just slightly below 'high' status, the way a water body would be were it in 'pristine' condition.
Pristine implies a pre-mankind naturalness, perhaps lakes and rivers from the Garden of Eden.
An early priority, therefore, is to create the necessary definitions to judge ecological status.
Usually this will be done by finding 'reference' water bodies in near pristine condition. That may be easier said than done in heavily populated Europe, and sometimes extrapolations and simulations will be used.
Unusually, the European Commission is aiding implementation of the directive through a 'common implementation strategy'. About a dozen international working groups are looking for and examining different kinds of pristine water bodies to produce biological and chemical guidelines.
The recommendations will not be mandatory. 'But we suspect the EC would use them as evidence when judging whether a state has complied with the directive or not, ' says Kruger.
Programmes of measures to clean up the water must be devised which will be delivered using river basin management plans. These plans must be ready by 2009 and the measures in them under way by 2012, with just three years to complete the main objectives.
Definition, measurement, planning and action will all have to run in parallel, says Tompkins, because the timetable is too tight to achieve any other way. It will be a major challenge.
'It is a tall order, ' says Professor David Butler at the civil engineering department of Imperial College, London, who has also been tracking the directive 'especially turning back the clock to pre-urbanisation. Even if you know what you are looking for, how do you get back to it?
'I don't think civil engineering has really caught up with this yet.'
A recent European seminar held with the World Wildlife Fund listed the following main benefits for the EWFD.
Improved ecological quality of European freshwater and coastal water ecosystems
Biodiversity gains through better management of aquatic and wetland habitats and species
lmproved sustainability of water use (through more efficient water resource use and management)
Reduction of water pollution lMitigation of the effects of floods and drought lImproved efficiency and effectiveness of water policy, with better targeting and reduced costs.
2003 Transpose directive into domestic law. Identify river basin districts and the competent authorities.
2004 Complete first characterisation of, and assessment of impacts on, river basin districts. Complete first economic analysis of water use.
Establish a register of protected areas in each district.
2007 Publish an interim overview of the significant water management issues in each river 2006 Establish environmental monitoring programmes. Publish a work programme for producing the first river basin management plans (RBMPs).
2008 Publish draft RBMPs for consultation.
2009 Finalise and publish first RBMPs. Finalise programme of measures to meet the objectives.
2012 Ensure all measures are fully operational. Publish timetable and work programme for second RBMPs*.
2013 Review characterisation and impact assessment for river basin districts. Review economic analysis of water use. Publish an interim overview of the significant water management issues.
2014 Publish second draft RBMPs for consultation.
2015 Achieve environmental objectives specified in first RBMPs.
Finalise and publish second RBMP with revised programme of measures.
2021 Achieve environmental objectives specified in second RBMPs. Publish third RBMPs.
2027 Achieve environmental objectives specified in third RBMPs. Publish fourth RBMPs.
*River basin plans will be done on a six year cycle.
Five types of status
The condition of water bodies will fall into five categories:
High ecological status
Each of the relevant biological, hydro-morphological and physicochemical quality elements match their reference conditions.
Good ecological status
The relevant biological quality elements are only slightly changed from their reference conditions as a result of human activity. Environmental quality standards are achieved for the relevant physicochemical quality elements.
Moderate ecological status
The relevant biological quality elements are moderately changed from their reference conditions as a result of human activity.
Poor ecological status
The relevant quality biological elements show major changes from their reference conditions as a result of human activity (ie there are substantial changes to the reference biological communities).
Bad ecological status
The relevant biological quality elements are severely changed from their reference conditions as a result of human activity (ie large portions of the reference biological communities are absent).
So-called heavily modified water bodies (HMWBs) and artificial water bodies (AWBs) cannot be brought to good status. Restoring a hydroelectric reservoir's bird or fish population might conflict with providing water to turbines for example. The HMWBs and AWBs will instead be judged on a five band scale of ecological 'potential', again aiming at 'good'.
Groundwater will be measured by the impact it has on surface water bodies that it connects to, and on the effect human activity has had on it. Chemical measurement will be the main criteria and also input and output quantities.
Participation and politics
The directive specifies that public participation is compulsory from the beginning, both on the wide scale and by drawing in 'stakeholders', from farmers to local authorities to environmental groups.
Information must be provided and, later on, consultation, with a particular deadline of 2006 for beginning the debate on the river basin management plans. Sufficient and appropriate resources must be made available for this.
There are likely to be some lively debates, particularly with ecological campaigners pushing for the strongest implementation of the directive and other groups deeply concerned about costs.
Water UK fears the water industry will be seen as an easy option for specific measures with an emphasis on further point source pollution control and new treatment 'hardware'.
'Water customers tend to pay up on time and complain relatively little, ' a spokesman said. But increases in water charges will almost certainly be needed.
An alternative is to throw more effort into controlling diffuse pollution, but this may prove contentious.
The government may well think twice about how much it can push onto the agricultural sector, for example, particularly in the wake of the huge countryside march.
A National Farmers Union spokesman told NCE that measures to control farm fertiliser runoff could cost £175 per hectare 'which is more in many cases than the farmer will have paid for the land'. The figure would only be so high if all the cost burden was thrown onto agriculture, which is highly unlikely.
The NFU concedes that fertiliser runoff is a problem, and recognises that controls on nitrates and phosphates are needed.
But it opposes tax or other mandatory controls and wants to see a voluntary system of education in nutrient management.
1. Brominated diphenylether (only pentabromobiphenylether) 2. Cadmium and its compounds 3. C10-13-chloroalkanes 4. Hexachlorobenzene 5. Hexachlorobutadiene 6. Hexachlorocyclohexane 7. Mercury and its compounds 8. Nonylphenols 9. Pentachlorobenzene 10. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) 11.Tributyltin compounds 13. Trichlorobenzenes 12. Simazine 14. Trifluralin 1. Anthracene Priority substances subject to review to priority hazardous substances 2. Atrazine 3. Chlorpyrifos 4. Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) 5. Diuron 6. Endosulfan 7. Isoproturon 8. Lead and its compounds 9. Naphthalene 10. Octylphenols 11. Pentachlorophenol Priority substances 1. Alachlor 2. Benzene 3. Chlorfenvinphos 4. 1,2-Dichloroethane 5. Dichloromethane 6. Fluoranthene 7. Nickel and its compounds 8. Trichloromethane