The Water Framework Directive 2000 (WFD) commits EU member states to achieve ‘good’ qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies by 2015. Post-Brexit, the WFD has been fully transposed into UK law.

Post-Brexit interpretation of the WFD in the UK

Transposing the WFD into UK law is likely to mean business as usual for the UK and brings new opportunities.

In the UK, environmental organisations may now be able to get involved, compliance should be possible to measure in a more practical way, and a new 25-year plan with a more integrated approach is being applied.

As with the WFD, the UK regulations cover the ecological and chemical health of all water bodies such as rivers, lakes, estuaries, groundwater, and coastal waters.

In the UK the stated aim is to prevent deterioration of, and where possible, improve the status of waterbodies. The ambitious first management cycle ended in 2015 and two more follow, ending in 2021 and 2027 with revisions every six years.

Water-body status is ranked on:

  • biological quality including fish and marine life
  • hydro-morphological quality such as riverbank structure and riverbed substrates
  • physical-chemical quality including oxygenation and nutrients in water
  • chemical quality specifying concentration limits for particular pollutants.

The requirements for developments

New developments can have a number of impacts on water quality and quantity:

Housing or water treatment plants can lead to additional wastewater discharge into surface waters, with resulting nutrient increases potentially leading to eutrophication.

This can be reduced by discharging to ground where possible, or using high levels of treatment if discharging to surface water.

Developments such as drinking water treatment plants, food and drink processing, hydroelectric power and nuclear/combustion power stations require abstraction. Others, such as transport and renewable energy schemes require dewatering for construction (the temporary lowering of groundwater level or reduction of groundwater pressures to enable excavation work). These both have the potential to alter the source surface or groundwater waterbody.

Assessing low flows and allowable abstraction can identify the likely impact on WFD status.

A wide range of developments, including road and rail transport schemes and wind and solar farms may introduce sediment and chemical pollutants into surface and/or groundwater bodies during their construction and/or operation phases.

Prevention guidelines are required to inform construction planning to reduce this pollution and additional mitigation such as silt traps might be necessary.

Examples of mitigation schemes required

WHS has completed WFD assessments on the St Athan Northern access road project evaluating potential impacts on hydro-morphology, water quality and ecology.

Our assessments confirmed that a mitigation scheme was needed to prevent the water body deteriorating. As a result, an innovative fish pass was developed by the project team allowing fish to pass through a relatively long culvert.

WHS has conducted LowFlow assessments for distilleries across Scotland to aid abstraction applications. Whisky distilleries use large amounts of pure and clean water, often from public water supplies, for production, cooling and cleaning processes, with implications for water bodies.

WHS has also been involved in modelling potential effluent discharges from distilleries to ensure the status of receiving waterbodies do not deteriorate, helping the developer to gain a discharge permit as part of the planning application.

WHS has also conducted assessments for hydroelectric schemes impounding water in reservoirs to reduce seasonal fluctuations in river flows. These schemes can achieve a constant release of flow, and power, as well as releasing more water when demand for electricity peaks.

Even a small adjustment of flow can have negative ecological consequences for streams and rivers downstream. WFD assessments often result in solutions such as minimum flow requirements or reduced turbine operation during fish migration.

Timing in the planning cycle

Most projects applying for development consent orders need a WFD assessment as well as an environmental impact assessment (EIA), and often a habitat regulation assessment (HRA).

Although WFD assessments inform environmental statements (ES) and vice versa, and these are best assessed in conjunction with each other, WFD impacts are assessed in a different way to EIA.

WFD assessments should be prepared in consultation with the environmental regulator at the earliest opportunity.

This is because the Environment Agency, and Natural Resources Wales in the first instance, and SoS and Welsh ministers, are responsible for approving WFD assessments.

A number of national policy statements require that an ES for a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) must have information on impacts from the proposed development on water bodies or protected areas under WFD. Additionally, infrastructure planning regulations sometimes require an (NSIP) applicant to provide a plan with their application including information identifying water bodies in a river basin management plan and an assessment of any potential impacts of the development on these.

Proposed projects that are low risk can be assessed on a smaller scale than a full WFD assessment.

In these instances, it is possible to carry out a WFD screening assessment before the full WFD compliance assessment (as in the approach taken with EIAs). This identifies any activities associated with the proposed development which don’t require further consideration. Activities which have been ongoing since before the current river basin management plan (RBMP) cycle would be one example, as they would have formed part of the development’s baseline.

The last word

The Water Framework Directive is essential to improving water quality and quantity.

In 2020 only 16% of waters met ‘good’ ecological status. This percentage gets less each year with population growth and climate change, so it is vital that projects conform to regulations.