Water Framework Directive: Crops’ guide

It has been law for six years already, but the Water Framework Directive is only beginning to show its teeth. Mike Abram explains what it is all about


[Q] What is the Water Framework Directive?


[A] It is European legislation that aims to protect and improve all water bodies, including surface and ground waters, estuaries and coastal waters. It became part of UK law in December 2003.


The framework draws together several pieces of existing legislation to assess water quality and how to improve it through a range of measures. It will use a new way of classifying the water environment using up to 30 parameters to classify water health.


In the past water quality was based on chemical status, but the new directive also looks at ecological health. And it operates on a one out, all out basis, so if a water body fails for one reason, it will be classified by that rating.


That does create a gloomy picture, Sarah Metcalfe of the Environment Agency admits. “It raises the bar; using the old classification 91% of waters in the Humber river basin were classified as good, now it is just 18%.”


Ecological status, which will look at the biological status of water is one area where improvement will be needed, according to the Environment Agency’s Peter Redfearn. “There is evidence we are not where we would like to be.”


That is partly due to diffuse pollution, which hasn’t been tackled by previous legislation. “It is like an accumulation of knocks – previously we have been looking for the knock-out [point-source pollution] blows.”


[Q] How will the legislation be implemented?


[A] The Environment Agency in England and Wales, and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in Scotland will put the directive into practice through a range of river basin management plans. Each river basin is essentially a collection of water sources that drain into an estuary. It also includes lakes and coastal waters out to one mile.


One of the EA’s and SEPA’s first tasks was to analyse the 11 English and Welsh river basin districts, and the one Scottish one (two more overlap into England), and assess the impact of human activity on them.


In late 2006 monitoring programmes were set up for each district, leading to the identification of significant water management issues for each in 2007.


During 2008 river basin management plans were drawn up for each district. These include an overview of the status of each water body in the district and, if required, a programme of measures to be implemented to achieve good water status by 2015.


A key requirement is for all measures to be cost-effective. “Improvement is not at any cost,” explains Ms Metcalfe. “Social cost has to be taken into account, and if a measure is found to be disproportionately costly then alternatives will be looked at.”


[Q] Why will this affect agriculture?


[A] According to the EA, over 80% of rivers and 75% of ground waters are under pressure from some form of diffuse pollution. Farming is not solely responsible but it is a large contributor through potential diffuse pollutants, such as nitrates, phosphates, pesticides, soil particles, slurries, heavy metals, oil from machinery and faecal pathogens from livestock manure.


The biggest challenges are expected to come from nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphorus, and from pesticides exceeding the 0.1ppb drinking water threshold.


In the Humber river basin, for example, virtually all of the 409 water bodies that fail the new standards for phosphorus are at risk from doing so from agriculture.


Similarly the recent metaldehyde monitoring has highlighted how certain pesticides are in danger of breaching the drinking water standard.


[Q] What might farmers have to do?


[A] Where problem areas have been identified farmers will be expected to modify practises to reduce water pollution.


Suggested programmes have been included in the draft river basin management plans that are currently in public consultation.


Measures range from soft options, such as education and advice through Catchment Sensitive Farming officers and voluntary initiatives to tougher solutions, for example pesticide bans. The EA is also exploring opportunities for ways to provide incentives for farmers, such as through agri-environment schemes.


One good example on an incentive-based scheme, according to Mr Redfearn, is United Utilities’ Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP), which operates in parts of Lancashire and the Peak District. The scheme provides incentives for farmers to reduce over-grazing and inappropriate management of upland regions that is thought to contribute discolouration of raw water, he explains.


The EA says it is committed to this type of joint approach to make the necessary improvements. Even restrictions, for example, on pesticides could, at least initially, be voluntary. The danger for growers is that those restrictions might make it difficult to use the product when it will be most effective.


[Q] What non-voluntary measures might be put in place?


Potentially the biggest stick in the EA’s armoury is the potential to create Water Protection Zones. A public consultation on DEFRA’s desire to amend existing legislation to make the use of WPZs more flexible ended on 31 March. This would allow the EA to put in place different management for particular activities, rather than just prohibit them.


If the proposal is passed into law, WPZs will be introduced in legally defined areas where there is a problem that other measures are not solving. A public consultation will be required before a WPZ can be introduced.


“There will need to be good evidence,” stresses EA’s Anna Hall. “At the point we apply for a WPZ we need to be able to legally define the area and the measures that will be in it.”


Eight WPZs are likely be introduced in the first River Basin Management Plans to “test the concept”, the EA says. They will be targeted at specific issues. According to the NFU’s Paul Tame, the EA will be able to control up to 44 farming issues within a WPZ, although it is unlikely to control all 44 in any one zone.


[Q] What targets have been set for my region?


The draft River Basin Management Plans outline the current classification for each water body (Annex A), and what the objectives are (Annex B) and the actions required to deliver them (Annex C).


Sounds simple – in practice these documents are massive. In the Humber, for example, each of the 1100 water bodies has a page for the objective, so using the search facility is likely to be necessary to find out the required information.


[Q] What happens if the targets are not met by 2015?


The current six-year cycle is just the first in three phases for the implementation of the directive. There will be further six-year plans put in place in 2015 and 2021, each with progressively more ambitious targets.


For example, in the Humber the EA wants to improve to the percentage of water bodies achieving good ecological status from 18% currently to 21% in 2015, 60% in 2021 and 100% in 2027.


Diffuse pollution


Diffuse pollution is pollution that cannot be traced back to a single large source, such as industrial or sewage effluent.


It includes true non-point sources, such as nitrates seeping into ground waters and nutrients being swept into water through sheet erosion.


But it also includes pollution from a multitude of minor point sources – it is pollution that arises from urban and rural land-uses that are dispersed across the catchment.


A good way of thinking about diffuse pollution is that it is a collection of individually minor sources of pollution that jointly cause problems.


Key objectives for the Water Framework Directive



  • Prevent deterioration in the status of surface water and ground water bodies
  • Protect, enhance, and restore all bodies of surface water and ground water with the aim of achieving good surface water status by 2015
  • Prevent or limit the input of pollutants to groundwater and reverse any significant and sustained upward trend pollutant concentration in groundwater
  • Comply on European measures against priority/priority hazardous substances
  • Comply with any relevant standards and objectives for protected areas

Useful links



  • WFD Information Centre (http://www.euwfd.com/)
  • DEFRA WFD (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/water/wfd/index.htm)
  • Environment Agency WFD (http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/wfd)
  • Find your local river basin (http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/planning/33112.aspx)
  • River Basin Management Plan consultation (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/water/wfd/management.htm)

Need a contractor?

Find one now