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Implementing the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003: Development of environmental standards and conditions: Policy Statement



3.1 Introductory outline

The introduction of environmental standards is a key step in securing effective protection of Scotland's aquatic ecosystems. The new standards and conditions will help SEPA assess and control risks to the water environment, classify the status of water bodies, and determine what actions are needed to meet our environmental objectives. Environmental standards will underpin risk-based regulation and river basin management planning. The next sections discuss the roles of environmental standards in more detail:

  • Classification of water bodies - assessing their status;
  • Monitoring to assess progress towards our environmental objectives
  • Objective-setting within the river basin management planning process; and
  • Regulation of activities affecting the water environment, through CAR

Figure 1: How environmental standards support river basin management planning

Figure 1: How environmental standards support river basin management planning

3.2 Classification of the water environment under the WFD

The WFD is much broader in scope than previous EU legislation. Whereas previous EU legislation tended to focus on the chemical quality of waters, the WFD requires us to describe both the ecological and chemical status of all surface water bodies and set ecologically-based objectives.

Ecological status describes the degree to which human uses of the water environment have altered the structure and functioning of aquatic plant and animal communities. The WFD requires us to assign water bodies to one of five ecological status classes: 'high', 'good', 'moderate', 'poor' and 'bad'. 'Good' ecological status means that human activities have had only slight impacts on the ecological characteristics of aquatic plants and animal communities.

Chemical status describes whether the water contains safe levels of certain toxic chemicals that have been identified as of particular concern across Europe because of their toxicity, persistence and ability to accumulate in the bodies of plants or animals. These include the chemicals known as ' priority substances' and include a sub-set called ' priority hazardous substances' as well as other toxic substances identified under the Dangerous Substances Directive. The chemical classification is simple: water which contains too high a concentration of the listed pollutants cannot be classified as 'good'. The WFD therefore has just two status classes: 'good' and 'failing to achieve good'. Standards for priority substances are expected to be established by the European Council and the European Parliament within the next year or so.

We are required to aim to achieve good ecological status and good chemical status by 2015. This is described in more detail below.

The WFD also requires us to classify the status of all bodies of groundwater and aim to achieve good groundwater status in each body of groundwater by 2015. Groundwater classification and associated standards will be addressed in work on phase 2 of the environmental standards (see Section 4.2).

  • Heavily Modified and Artificial Water Bodies ( HMWBs and AWBs)

In some cases, substantial alterations made for activities like navigation, water storage, flood defence and land drainage may mean that a surface water body cannot reach 'good' ecological status. Where certain criteria are met, the WFD allows such water bodies to be designated as heavily modified water bodies ( HMWBs). Other water bodies, such as canals, that have been created where no natural water body previously existed, will be designated as artificial. More information on how these water bodies will be identified is set out in our paper on objective setting.

Application of the environmental standards to HMWBs will vary depending on the nature of the standard. For example:

  1. Water quality - standards will usually be directly applicable to HMWBs. For example, environmental standards for toxic pollutants are not dependent on whether a water body is heavily modified or artificial.
  2. Water flows and levels, physical structure - depending on the modifications or the artificial characteristics on which the use of the water body depends, hydrological and morphological standards may not be directly applicable to HMWBs.
  • Standards and classification

The WFD requires that monitoring and assessment methods are developed to enable the classification of surface water bodies.

The first step in this process is to decide, technically, how best to monitor and assess the condition of aquatic plants and animals in our rivers, lochs, estuaries and coastal waters and relate the results back to the WFD's descriptions of the ecological conditions expected for each status class. This means defining, for instance, the composition and abundance of fish, invertebrates and plant communities that would be found if the water environment was subject to no more than very minor human disturbance. These reference conditions provide the starting point for assessing the degree of change from those conditions that would equate to 'good' status, and as human impacts progressively increase, 'moderate', 'poor' and 'bad' status.

The second step is to look at the condition of the physical characteristics of the water environment associated with each of the ecological status classes. These characteristics include:

physico-chemical characteristics - e.g. oxygen levels, acidity, temperature, nutrients and the concentration of toxic chemicals, referred to by the WFD as ' specific pollutants' ( see Table 1 in Annex A).

Hydrological characteristics - e.g. water flows and levels; and

Morphological characteristics - e.g. physical shape and characteristics of the bed and banks of rivers, including the structure and condition of bank vegetation.

The composition of plant and animal communities in our rivers, lochs, estuaries and coastal waters varies with the characteristics of those waters. Some of the necessary environmental standards will also vary with the natural characteristics of the water environment and the sensitivity of the aquatic plant and animal communities that have evolved and adapted to them. To avoid introducing environmental standards that would be over-protective in some places and under-protective in others, where necessary the environmental standards vary with the characteristics, or type, of the river, loch, estuary or coastal water concerned.

Each environmental standard has been set at the minimum level that the available scientific evidence indicates is necessary to protect aquatic plants and animals. This means, for example, that if the environmental standard for 'good' status oxygen levels was failed, there would be a significant risk of adverse impacts on the condition of aquatic animals or plants.

The UK environmental standards have been developed in conjunction with biological classification methods. This is to ensure that the standards describe the environmental conditions needed by aquatic plants and animals at 'high' and at 'good' status.

  • Risk assessments and classification

In 2004, SEPA undertook an analysis of the characteristics of all water bodies. This characterisation exercise identified the pressures to which our water bodies are subject and the risk posed by those pressures to the achievement of good status.

The analysis was based on the information on pressures and impacts and used risk-criteria agreed across the UK. In recognition of the limitations of the available data, water bodies were classified in four risk categories, including 1a water bodies, which are water bodies that SEPA has high confidence are 'at significant risk' of failing to achieve good status by 2015 and 1b water bodies, which are considered 'probably at significant risk'.

Since the reports were published, SEPA has been working to refine its assessment of water bodies identified as probably at significant risk (1b). To do this it has been gathering better information on the pressures to which the relevant water bodies are subject and on the impacts of those pressures. It will also use the new environmental standards to refine the risk-criteria. Specifically:

  • CAR has provided SEPA with greatly improved information about the pressures on the water environment, and particularly about abstraction volumes and impoundment compensation flows;
  • SEPA has been using the results of the risk analysis to help target its monitoring work since 2005. From December 2006, SEPA introduced a comprehensive new monitoring programme for the water environment designed to provide the information required to implement the WFD and the WEWS Act.

The Significant Water Management Issues report ( SWMI), to be published later this year, will include an update on the work SEPA has been doing to refine its original risk assessments.

3.3 Monitoring and assessment

Classification decisions will take account of biological monitoring results as well as information on whether the environmental standards are being met.

SEPA established a new monitoring network in December 2006 to enable it to classify the status of all our water bodies. SEPA has ensured that adequate monitoring sites are in place to assess the state of the water environment over time, targeting and prioritising those water bodies that are at risk of failing to meet our environmental objectives.

Several years' data will be needed to fully classify the status of all Scotland's water bodies. SEPA will produce as accurate a picture as possible of the status of our water bodies by December 2009 and present this in the first River Basin Management Plan. The results of the monitoring programmes will help to identify whether actions taken to improve the water environment are effective, and to monitor achievement of our environmental objectives.

By monitoring a range of conditions (physico-chemical, hydrological and morphological) and comparing the results against the environmental standards, SEPA can identify the scale of improvements necessary to mitigate adverse impacts on the status of our aquatic ecosystems. Monitoring information will therefore support both the RBMP process and the regulation of water use in Scotland.

As information on the ecological status of our water bodies is gathered, the scientific understanding of the environmental conditions needed to support the achievement of 'good' status is likely to improve. Information provided by monitoring and classification or other sources may indicate that an environmental standard for a water body type could be too stringent or too lax. Where this is the case, we expect SEPA to coordinate a review of that standard and, if appropriate, to come forward with proposals for revisions.

Revisions to environmental standards will be taken into account during updates of the River Basin Management Plans. However, we do not propose to introduce new or revised standards during a planning cycle.

3.4 Objective setting and River Basin Management Plans

River basin management planning is a new process of water resource management in river basin districts introduced for the first time by the WFD and the WEWS Act. It will include defining specific environmental objectives for each water body and identifying and implementing a programme of measures to deliver those targets. The Executive's policy statement on 'Principles for setting objectives in the River Basin Management Plan' provides further information on this process.

Environmental standards underpin the objective-setting process, as they are fundamental in assessing risks to the status of the water environment and highlighting where action is needed, either to avoid deterioration or to achieve 'good' ecological status. The standards will help to indicate the type and extent of any problems, as well as the sort of actions that could be effective in delivering improvements or preventing deterioration. The effectiveness of the programmes of measures will be assessed through ongoing assessment of the ecological and chemical status of each water body.

SEPA will work with water users to develop a River Basin Management Plan for the Scotland River Basin District and for the Solway Tweed River Basin District (jointly with the Environment Agency) by December 2009. The programmes of measures that are designed in this process must be operational by December 2012.

3.5 Regulation through the Controlled Activities Regulations

Since 1 April 2006, activities in Scotland which pose a risk to the water environment, including abstractions, impoundments, discharges and engineering works in freshwater, must be authorised under the CAR. SEPA will use the environmental standards to support the setting of conditions for CAR licences and to assess the capacity of the water environment to accommodate new water use activities without harming its ecological quality. Among other things, we expect SEPA's regulatory activity to contribute to achieving our environmental objectives.

Early in 2007, SEPA will begin a prioritised review of licences issued under CAR. This review will consider the type of activity, its impact and the licence conditions that were initially applied. The review process will identify the extent to which it is feasible and not disproportionately expensive to avoid or to reduce the adverse impacts of those activities on the water environment, through varying the conditions of authorisations. Information from this review of licences will support the first cycle of basin planning in Scotland by helping to identify what improvements can be delivered by operators of controlled activities, and hence what objectives can be achieved through CAR.

3.6 Directions to SEPA

The Executive is in the process of issuing Directions to SEPA, specifying how SEPA should use these environmental standards when carrying out its functions under the WEWS Act and CAR Separate Directions may be issued in respect of SEPA's functions in the Solway Tweed River Basin District, if appropriate. In implementing these Directions, the Executive expects SEPA's use of the standards to be guided by the principles set out at section 5.

The Directions will be published on the Executive website.

Table 2 in Annex 1 sets out the standards introduced in the first phase by means of these Directions.