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Jim Grandison discusses the implications of the Water Framework Directive.

The Institution of Civil Engineers has described the Water Framework Directive (WFD) as 'the biggest thing since the Roman aqueducts'. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) has made it clear that it is the 'most substantial piece of EC water legislation to date' and it has been covered in just about every industry publication over the past few months.

But what impact is it going to have on the way construction firms operate?

The legislation has just come into effect but staggeringly it has been reported that around 89% of civil engineers have no understanding of its implications.

Over the past 20 years a number of policies and directives have affected drinking water, wastewater treatment and nitrate pollution from agriculture. There has also been legislation aimed at preventing and controlling pollution from industry.

For the vast majority of engineers, the shear quantity of red tape simply creates a cloud of confusion, and for some, an ideal opportunity to find a loophole.

Unfortunately, important stakeholders associated with the wider water environment were missing from the old legislation and it therefore failed to provide a cohesive safeguard.

The new WFD sets out an integrated and strategic framework for the protection of all waters, including ground, inland surface, transitional and coastal waters. It also aims to prevent the further deterioration of valuable resources, by establishing longterm protection measures that will reduce groundwater pollution and the effects of floods and droughts.

The delivery of the WFD will be achieved through setting up River Basin Management Plans (RBMP). These will contain a detailed account of how the objectives set for the river basin are to be reached and maintained. Objectives will cover the status of elements such as ecology, chemical and protected area status. An additional component is an economic analysis of water use within the river basin.

This will enable a rational discussion on the cost effectiveness of the possible measures.

Of critical importance to the successful implementation of the directive is the ability of regulators to be able to deliver clear, accurate and understandable information from the outset. Many observers argue this understanding is sadly missing; up to now most of the information on the directive has been aimed at government, with little forthcoming on its practical implementation.

The legal elements of the directive will be the ultimate responsibility of DEFRA but the Environment Agency will be responsible for administering the rules. A question mark centres on one of the environmental principles of the directive - achieving and maintaining 'good water status'. But just what is meant by 'good status'.

However, possibly of greater importance is the question of who is going to pay for implementing the directive. Various bodies have estimated the cost at between £2bn and £16bn. Environmental and social costs are to be recovered on the 'polluter pays' principal. It goes without saying that this principal is relatively easy to administer in the case of point source pollution, but it will be increasingly difficult to identify the polluter in the case of diffuse pollution.

UK water companies are being told by UK water regulator OFWAT that they will be unable to raise the prices charged to customers. In a recent article in the Sunday Times, Dr Andrew Skinner of the Environment Agency argued that many of the problems associated with water pollution were 'the responsibility of others'. Water run-off from ongoing residential, commercial and industrial developments and road construction is putting increased environmental pressure on groundwater and watercourses.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott has already announced a huge house-building programme in the south east of England, which, ultimately, may see the influx of more than 700,000 people.

Developers will have to be aware of the directive when designing and building sustainable drainage systems. Action is required over time to reduce both the quantitative and qualitative impact of runoff on local watercourses and floodplains, and to ensure that clean run-off is taken to ground wherever possible.

Contaminants from road run-off is of great concern and the Highways Agency is going to have to pay particular attention to five main areas where this can affect groundwater conditions.

lAccidental spills of petroleum or hazardous substances;

lPetrol and oil leakage from vehicles;

lRoad salt application;

lWeed control chemicals;

lAirborne vehicle emissions finding their way into the water system.

But for diffuse pollution and water run-off in particular, who is ultimately responsible and who is going to pay? Is it the contractor, consultant or developer, the local authority, or the Highways Agency? It could be argued that the government is responsible in allowing such schemes to go ahead despite the implications.

Or is it going to be you and me?

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