Assessing Scotland's water environment: use of environmental standards, condition limits and classification schemes

This document sets out how SEPA should implement the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003, using Directions from 2014.

Section 1 Introduction

1.1 Purpose

The aims of this policy statement are two-fold:

  • to provide information on the principles underpinning the environmental standards and condition limits, and outline the Scottish Government's policy on how these are expected to be used by SEPA and other regulators to protect, and where necessary to improve, our water environment;
  • to describe our approach to classifying the status of our water environment, using these environmental standards.

Scotland's water environment is in a relatively good condition compared with that of many European countries. However, our water environment is under pressure, with around 33% of Scotland's water bodies currently identified as not meeting good status. We need to protect the quality of the waters we have, and, where necessary and practicable, improve the status of those that are under pressure. In doing so, the Scottish Government's key aim is to strike the right balance between protecting and improving the water environment and supporting the social and economic needs of those who depend on it. Through the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 (the WEWS Act), and its supporting legislation, we now have in place an integrated legislative framework to help deliver that aim.

General Purpose Of Environmental Standards

The key mechanism for delivering improvements to the water environment is the river basin management planning process. This process relies on the use of environmental standards and condition limits to help us assess risks to the ecological quality of our water environment and to identify the scale of improvements needed to bring those waters not in good condition back to good health.

The standards underpin our efforts to protect and, where necessary, improve the water environment by informing decisions made by regulators on the controls required for activities that could adversely affect the water environment. They also help us identify what is needed to support the achievement of 'good ecological status' - and so inform the setting of environmental objectives in the river basin management planning process. It is therefore important that the standards are based on sound science and set at levels which protect the varying needs of Scotland's aquatic ecosystems; and reviewed over time in the light of new scientific evidence.

1.2 Environmental standards relating to the water environment

The WFD is much broader in scope than previous EU environmental legislation. Whereas earlier EU legislation tended to focus on the chemical quality of waters, the WFD's focus is on ecological quality. It sets out a wide range of parameters for which Member States must establish environmental standards for the purpose of protecting the ecological health of their waters. The river basin planning framework established by the WFD also encompasses a series of protected areas, including for drinking water, bathing and economically important species of shellfish.

The 2014 Status Directions set out our scheme for assessing the condition of drinking water protected areas. Standards for assessing the condition of Bathing Waters are defined in the Bathing Waters Directive. We have issued separate Directions setting out standards that apply to Shellfish Waters designated under the 2013 Shellfish Regulations. Two daughter Directives also fit within the framework established by the WFD:

  • The Priority Substances Directive 2008 introduces standards in respect of priority substances and certain other pollutants. These standards are included in the 2014 Standards Directions.
  • The Groundwater Directive 2006 requires us to introduce the measures necessary to prevent inputs into groundwater of any hazardous substances; and limit inputs of other pollutants so that they do not cause deterioration of groundwater. SEPA currently uses standards developed for the purposes of an earlier Groundwater Directive, and for the time being, we expect SEPA to continue to use those standards when carrying out its regulatory functions and when providing advice to other regulators, such as local authorities. Further scientific work is underway and we expect UKTAG to come forward with updated recommendations on groundwater protection. Once we have considered these recommendations, we plan to include a set of standards for protecting groundwater from pollutant inputs in the Standards Directions.

1.3 Using environmental standards in River Basin Management Planning

Environmental standards have a number of roles in the RBMP process. They form the basis of the monitoring programmes used in classifying the state of the water environment. Those same standards enable consistent objective-setting within the river basin management planning process. Delivery of those objectives will largely be achieved through the effective regulation of activities affecting the water environment, by the application of those environmental standards via mechanisms such as CAR, restoration notices and marine licensing. These various roles are discussed in more detail below.

  • Monitoring

SEPA established a new risk-based monitoring network in December 2006. The network ensures that we have appropriate monitoring sites in place to adequately assess the state of the water environment. The bulk of SEPA's monitoring effort is targeted on those water bodies that are at risk of failing to meet good ecological status. Information provided by monitoring or other sources may indicate that an environmental standard 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 subject to consultation and Ministerial approval, and will be taken into account during further updates of the River Basin Management Plans every 6 years.

  • Classification of the water environment under the WFD

Classification of the status of surface water bodies provides a means of describing the extent to which their ecological quality has been affected by human activity. The WFD also requires us to classify the status of all bodies of groundwater. The results of classification enable us to identify where further monitoring may be required to improve understanding of the water environment and where we need to make improvements in order to achieve our objectives. The various components of the classification process are discussed in detail in section 3 of this policy statement.

  • Objective setting and River Basin Management Plans

River basin management planning is a process of water resource management in river basin districts. It was introduced for the first time by the WFD and the WEWS Act. The process involves defining specific environmental objectives for each water body and identifying and implementing a programme of measures to deliver those objectives. Objectives are set in accordance with the Water Environment (River Basin Management Planning: Further Provision) (Scotland) Regulations 2013. The Scottish Government's policy statement on " Principles for setting objectives for the River Basin Management Plan" provides further information on this process.

Environmental standards underpin the objective-setting process. They are fundamental in assessing risks to the status of the water environment and highlighting where action is needed, either to prevent deterioration or to achieve good status. The effectiveness of the programmes of measures is evaluated through ongoing assessments of the ecological and chemical status of each water body.

  • Regulation - CAR, restoration and marine licensing

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 CAR. SEPA uses the environmental standards to assess the capacity of the water environment to accommodate proposed activities without harming its ecological quality and to set conditions of authorisation in CAR licences for those activities. This regulatory activity protects the water environment and balances the interests of its users as well as contributing to achieving our environmental objectives.

The morphological condition limits also guide any physical restoration activity required to meet the objectives of the RBMP. Among other things, the second phase of environmental standards in 2009 introduced morphological conditions for coastal waters and estuaries. In the course of its regulatory functions in the marine environment the Scottish Government will utilise these condition limits to protect such waters.


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