Water resources management policy in the UK 1721 European legislative framework

The Water Resources Act of 1963 can be seen as the beginning of river basin management in the UK. Now, in the early twenty-first century, water resources management falls under the over-arching framework of European legislation that takes this concept further. The European Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) established an integrated approach to the protection, improvement and sustainable use of rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater. It introduced two significant advances in the environmental framework for management of water resources. One of these was a move from regulation based on specific Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) and emissions control of dangerous chemical pollutants to a more ecosystem-based approach. The second was the formalisation of large-scale, integrated river basin management planning across Europe.

The WFD introduced broad ecological objectives to promote sustainable use of water resources. This 'ecological health' is assessed by a system of classification and assessment that considers both the ecological potential of water bodies and the present and planned ecological status. There are five classes of ecological status: high, good, moderate, poor and bad. Surface water bodies are sub-divided in rivers, lakes, transitional (e.g. estuaries) and coastal. The concept of ecological potential allows for the fact that there are also some water bodies, such as harbours and canals, which are heavily modified for social or economic use or entirely artificial. Ecological status is assessed through a combination of biological, chemical and morphological indicators (Table 17.1).

The WFD introduced a river basin management planning system as the mechanism for ensuring the integrated management of water resources and the water needs of terrestrial ecosystems. The river basin planning system provides a decision-making

Table 17.1 Indicators for assessment of the ecological status of surface water bodies in the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC classification scheme recommended for UK waters by UKTAG (2009)

Quality elements

Surface water category

Rivers Lakes

Transitional Coastal


Benthic invertebrates



Macrophytes and phytobenthos

Macroalgae and angiosperms


Oxygenation (dissolved oxygen concentration)

Thermal conditions

Nutrients Nutrients


(Soluble reactive (total phosphorus

(dissolved inorganic nitrogen)

phosphorus concentration)




Acidification status:

pH acid-neutralising



Depth variation

Bed structure and substrate

Quantity and dynamics of water flow

Freshwater flow Direction of



Wave exposure

Connection to ground water

Continuity Residence time

Riparian zone Shore structure

Structure of the inter-tidal zone


Width variation

Fig. il.2 European river basin districts (RBDs).

framework for setting environmental objectives and identifying cost-effective combinations of measures to achieve the objectives. River-basin planning is based geographically around river basin districts (RBDs), which are catchments or groups of catchments, together with associated coastal waters, as shown in Fig. 17.2. The WFD requires a River Basin Management Plan to be published and reviewed every 6 years for each RBD, setting out the environmental objectives for water bodies within the RBD and how they will be achieved. In England and Wales plans are due to be published in 2009.

Other European directives that affect water resources management are the Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC) and the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). The Drinking Water Directive sets quality standards for drinking water and obliges member states to regular monitoring of drinking water quality. The Habitats Directive (29/43/EEC) requires the identification of special areas of conservation (SACs). The Birds Directive (79/409/EEC) designates Special Protection Areas (SPAs). There are over 240 SPAs in the UK as a whole. Together with sites identified as SACs, these form the 'Natura 2000' network of protected conservation sites. Many of these sites are within rivers, or the whole length of a river, or are affected by river management practices. Where river reaches fall within an SAC or SPA, they are also likely to receive designation as protected areas under the WFD. This can result in restrictions being placed on water resources management practices that could impact on the sites, such as abstractions, discharges or the deployment of physical structures.

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