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Digging Deeper: The Water Framework Directive and Brexit

The next 12 months will be a critical time for the UK water industry as its response to the Water Framework Directive in PR19 coincides with Brexit negotiations

by Geoff Cooper-Smith, Technical Director, Facilitated Research

The Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000) introduced new and ambitious objectives to protect and restore aquatic ecosystems as a basis for ensuring the long term sustainable use of water for people, business and nature. This committed European Union member states to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status (as defined by various standards) of all water bodies (including marine waters up to one nautical mile from shore) by 2015. The WFD became UK law on 4th January 2004 (in England and Wales).

A key part of this is the River Basin Management Plan (RBMP), which requires identification of all the actions to be taken in a river basin to deliver the objectives of the WFD; the original timetable for Member States required the RBMP to commence in 2009. Unfortunately, the amount of work and the timescales required by the member states to achieve ‘good’ status was severely underestimated and by 2015 less than 50% of European Union water bodies achieved the necessary standard. As a result, at least two further six-year RBMPs are now proposed, which takes implementation up to 2027; it is anticipated that at that point WFD compliance will be 100% and all water bodies will therefore be of good status. Although this extension is both welcome and necessary, the phasing of the RBMPs has the potential to represent a considerable challenge to the UK in achieving WFD compliance in a timely and cost-effective manner. This is because the UK has a five-year investment cycle, known as of Asset Management Programmes (AMPs), which is out of step with the six-year cycle of the RBMPs.

A consequence of this ‘mismatch’ is that most of the capital expenditure required to comply with the WFD will undoubtedly have to be undertaken in AMP7, which runs from April 2020 to March 2025. This doesn’t seem too bad a situation until the timetable for PR19 – the process of submission to the Water Regulator, OFWAT, leading up to the commencement of AMP7 - is taken into consideration. Most water companies are currently preparing to start the PR19 process in earnest as a business plan needs to be submitted to OFWAT in early September 2018, with a draft determination following in mid-2019 and the final determination in late 2019.

Tougher implementation

Although implementation of the WFD is actually already underway as part of AMP6, these are the easier elements: e.g. those with a Phosphorus discharge of greater than 0.5 mg/l. The really difficult, and expensive elements, including P standards of less than 0.5 and removing priority substances (affecting around 700 wastewater treatment works in the UK and potentially the most challenging component of the WFD) is yet to do.

Although the UK, through its CIP1 and CIP2 (Chemical Investigation) programmes, is further ahead than most other EU countries in terms of its understanding of the extent of the problem, there is still so much more to do, particularly regarding the determination of cost-effective strategies, technologies and techniques for the removal of these substances and understanding their subsequent fate.

£30BN cost

The UK Government Science and Technology Select Committee determined that the cost of implementing the WFD in the UK could be as much as £30BN, with an additional associated operating cost of £30M per annum thereafter.

This represents both a considerable investment and a major programme of work for any water company, its service and equipment suppliers and contractors. However, little visibility of this potentially very significant demand appears to be actively transmitted within water companies, or to its providers, suppliers and contractors. As a consequence they are not aware of, and thus unable to prepare for, this significant future demand. Currently, the first many of them will know about this requirement will probably be a ‘flood’ of enquiries during PR19. Unless visibility is significantly improved across the whole industry, the UK could fail to meet its obligations regarding the WFD, let alone put itself in a position to exploit the opportunities presented by implementation of the WFD in the other 35 EU countries.

It is recognised that some steps have recently been taken to improve visibility – for example, presentations at conferences on the CIP2 programme - and as welcome as this is, it is considered far from sufficient if the whole industry is to ‘be prepared’.

Furthermore, CIP2 is restricted to those technologies which it had to ‘lock on to’ at the beginning of the programme some three years ago, and a lot of new and potentially more cost effective technologies and techniques have come along during the intervening period.

Brexit conundrum

The whole situation is of course complicated by the outcome of the recent ‘Brexit’ referendum and it will inevitably take some time for a position regarding EU related legislation, and the WFD in particular, to be established. There are a range of possible scenarios as a result of ‘Brexit’ for the WFD; from implementation as is, through to further extensions of the timescale to spread the cost, through to a repeal of the whole Act (which would take time as this would have to go through Parliamentary Committees). There will be little clarity on the post-Brexit picture until well into 2017, with the Government’s triggering of Article 50 in March set to be only the start of complex negotiations.

This uncertainty is creating very real difficulty for the regulators and putting them in somewhat of quandary regarding PR19 and the content of AMP7. Do they push ahead regardless with the WFD while the UK remains in the EU, or do they stop, on the premise that the UK is leaving the EU and risk potential infraction proceedings or even compromising any negotiations arising from Article 50 activation? There are various mechanisms available to OFWAT which can be used to add additional programmes during an AMP, but they have never been used previously for work of such scale.

Consequently, the next twelve months or so could be a critical time for the UK water industry in many respects, including how it prepares, manages and responds to the challenges associated with the WFD and the impact of Brexit. Everyone has a duty to try and minimise the cost impact to the UK, whatever the eventual outcome. However, this can only be achieved if all parties and participants have sufficient visibility.

Collaborative platform

It is for these reasons that the Water Framework Directive – UK Collaborative Platform (WFD-UKP) is being set-up. Platforms are becoming increasingly popular, and successful, in Europe as a way of encouraging collaboration to find better, more holistic, community involved solutions (which is a stated requirement of the WFD). The principal objective of the WFD-UKP (at least pre-Brexit) is to reduce the cost of implementing the WFD to the UK which benefits all platform members: regulators, academia, environmental bodies, water companies, consultants, contractors, equipment suppliers, consultants and others.

Members of the WFD-UKP will get very much increased visibility of the WFD and its application within the UK allowing them to reduce their uncertainty and be better prepared for the eventual outcome(s). This visibility will be improved through newsletters, conferences and working groups as well as the opportunity to collaborate as never before in order to produce better total solutions to meet the requirements of the WFD. It is also ventured that this situation actually represents a significant opportunity for the UK in terms of the potential export of knowledge, expertise and technology which arise should we push on regardless of Brexit. So look out for further announcements, become a WFD-UKP member, and be prepared!

-This article is an adapted version of a paper presented by Geoff Cooper-Smith to the 10th European Waste Water Management Conference on 11th-12th October in Manchester.

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