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Water special: Raising the bar

More than £80bn has already been spent improving the quality of rivers in England and Wales. New plans will require even more investment and a whole new approach to managing our rivers. NCE reports.

Last month the draft River Basin Management Plans for England and Wales, prepared by the Environment Agency, were submitted to ministers for ratification.

They have until 22 December to scrutinise the plans, approve them, or suggest amendments.

The plans are the primary mode of delivery for the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which is one of the most significant pieces of European legislation in recent times. It is designed to integrate the way water bodies are managed across Europe.

“Important work has been under way by the Environment Agency to comply with the strict timetable of the Water Framework Directive.”

Alastair Moseley, WSP

The WFD provides a clear framework for meeting the aims of protecting and enhancing the water environment, promoting sustainable water consumption, reducing water pollution and lessening the effects of floods and droughts. And it promotes a new approach to water management through river basin planning.

Recent concentration on flooding and on the Floods and Water Bill by politicians and the water industry means that attention to the progress of the WFD has been neglected. This could be a mistake.

“For obvious reasons we have all been concentrating our efforts on combating flooding in this country and producing legislation to enable flood prevention to be carried out more easily,” says Alastair Moseley, WSP water sector director and past president of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.

“But running in parallel with this, important work has been under way by the Environment Agency to comply with the strict timetable of the Water Framework Directive, and its consequences will have a far greater impact on our society than we realise,” says Moseley.

New challenges

Under the directive’s timetable, all River Basin Management Plans have to be in place this year, giving European Union member states five years to implement programmes to improve water quality in all water bodies to good status − or propose a timetable of actions to achieve this beyond 2015.

Water quality is affected by pollution and the UK water industry has invested more than £80bn since privatisation in 1989 to improve the quality of its treated effluent and sewerage overflows to bring 70% of English rivers and 90% of Welsh rivers to what were good standards under previous legislation.

“Education, innovation, creativity and involving the public in managing water bodies will be the only way we can achieve theses objectives in an affordable way.”

Alastair Moseley, WSP

However, the WFD raises the bar and under new chemical, biological and ecological standards only 26% of rivers in England and Wales achieve good or very good status. “Under the WFD we now face new challenges to raise the quality of water in our rivers, lakes and canals that cannot be achieved by the water industry alone,” explains Moseley.

Such is the magnitude of the challenge that the first five-year plans are estimated to raise the number of rivers with good quality to between 32% and 34%. And all this, of course, coincides with the worst economic crisis in recent history, so achieving the required level of investment will be a real challenge.

“In the end, education, innovation, creativity and involving the public in managing water bodies will be the only way we can achieve theses objectives in an affordable way. Engineers, scientists and planners will have to work more collaboratively in future for the UK not to breach its obligations,” says Moseley.

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