Twitter LinkedIn

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The EU Water Framework Directive should be a cornerstone of any new plan for the

UK environment post-Brexit.

July 2016

Behind the post EU Referendum headlines, the Government is faced with the huge challenge of deciding which aspects of EU law are retained in a post Brexit UK. Nowhere is this challenge greater than within Defra, given the extent to which environmental law has been shaped by our membership of the EU. As Richard Benwell blogged here recently, as hard as it might seem, the environmental sector needs to turn Brexit into an opportunity.

We already have a good starting point for managing water with the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), which has been described as one of most ambitious pieces of environmental legislation ever passed and at its heart is a goal to manage water, and by definition the whole catchment, in an integrated and joined up way for the benefit of society. there are many reasons for championing the WFD and ensuring we build on fact it is still very much part of UK statute:

  • The WFD is ecologically based and focuses attention on how our management and mismanagement of land and water affects what matters for wildlife and people in freshwater and coastal ecosystems (it goes beyond indirect measures of water chemistry);
  • The River Basin Management Planning process of WFD has driven the development of the Catchment Based Approach which is arguably one of the most successful partnerships between Government, third sector and civil society. This is driving decision making and delivery at the catchment level and unlocking investment that would be beyond the reach of the regulatory agencies alone;
  • The development of metrics and tools for WFD has seen unprecedented collaboration between UK agencies and with our EU neighbours. We have been able to share and borrow the very best ideas and understanding in water management across Europe;
  • We now have a suite of tools and environmental standards ‘inter-calibrated’ across the EU giving industry certainty and a level playing field;
  • These assessment tools are beginning to give us a much better understanding of the health of our waters and the pressures that affect them. It is no coincidence when the independent Natural Capital Committee looked at existing measures for natural capital for its second report it concluded that we had a better picture of the state of the freshwater asset than for any other part of natural capital;
  • The WFD was shaped by UK scientists and is yet another example of us helping set the agenda for a better environment across the continent.

The WFD has also been criticised. First, it is based on an old fashioned view of ecology in which ecosystems and communities can be classified into neat boxes and species respond to human pressures such as nutrient enrichment and water abstraction, in predictable and linear ways. Secondly, it is a complex piece of legislation and a huge amount of effort has been required to determine and set targets, develop new methods of assessing the health of different species groups, and establish integrated planning processes. Thirdly, the WFD (as applied) misses out on some of our smaller waterbodies that might nonetheless be the most important places for wildlife. Finally, one might argue that achieving the ambitions of WFD is way beyond the mechanisms it introduces, therefore requiring a much wider suite of tools (it is true to its ‘framework’ epithet ).

These shortcomings are an inevitable consequence of both the scale and the ambition of the WFD and to some extent have already been addressed through implementation or remain as opportunities for further improvement (e.g. ensuring adequate protection for small waterbodies). Trying to address the scientific challenges and complexity of the WFD forces us to innovate and think differently.

Whether as part of an ambitious plan to restore nature or simply as part of the painstaking job of reviewing each page of environmental law we developed as part of the EU, we need a strong basis for the protection of water and the wildlife associated with it. The WFD is far from perfect but it’s a very good place to start.

Dr Stewart Clarke

Freshwater & Estuaries National Specialist, The National Trust

Find Stewart on Twitter @fluitans

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership