The introduction of the Water Framework Directive ("WFD") in 2000 changed the way we manage Scotland's water environment. We have set up a comprehensive river basin management planning system to help protect and improve the ecological health of our rivers, lochs, estuaries and coastal waters. This is underpinned by the use of environmental standards to help assess risks to the ecological quality of the water environment and to identify the scale of improvements that would be needed to prevent deterioration and bring waters under pressure back into a good condition.
In 2014, prior to the publication of the second river basin management plans, Scottish Ministers directed SEPA to apply a range of environmental standards in protecting and improving the water environment ("the 2014 Standards Directions"). They also directed SEPA on the use of the standards in assessing the status of the water environment ("the 2014 Status Directions"). In parallel with these directions, we issued a policy statement describing how we expect SEPA to use standards in classifying the status of waterbodies, regulating controlled activities and setting environmental objectives.
We are now proposing to update the 2014 Directions to reflect the latest scientific understanding of the standards, and assessment methods used to derive them, needed for a healthy water environment. Our proposals are based on recommendations from UK Technical Advisory Group on the Water Framework Directive ("UKTAG"), a partnership of the UK environment and conservation agencies.
The technical basis for most of the standards has already been subject to peer review and public consultation by UKTAG. This consultation is about the adoption and application of the standards and assessment methods in river basin management in Scotland.
Adopting the standards has implications for where efforts to protect and improve the water environment are targeted. However, the standards do not dictate the objectives we set. The latter have to strike the right balance between protecting the water environment and enabling its sustainable use. Where, for example, making the improvements needed to achieve the standards required for good status would be disproportionately expensive, appropriate, alternative objectives will be set. Our 2007 paper, Principles for Setting Objectives for the River Basin Management Plan, describes the objective setting process in more detail.
Environmental standards form the foundation of a risk-based approach to river basin management planning. Updating environmental standards in the light of improved scientific understanding is important. It helps ensure we appropriately protect the water environment without imposing unnecessary constraints on development. It also enables us to refine our understanding of where the water environment is under pressure and the scale of environmental improvements we would need to achieve good ecological quality.
We are proposing to introduce a small number of changes to standards and assessment methods, based on the latest scientific understanding of aquatic ecosystems, and taking account of the evidence gained from using the existing standards and environmental monitoring programmes from across the UK.
They include new and revised specific ecological standards for rivers and lochs along with new and revised assessment methods. Their introduction will make an important contribution to improving our understanding of the ecological quality of the water environment. This will help us better prioritise action, particularly in relation to one of our top priority areas, easing barriers to fish migration.
Some of our existing standards have proved insufficiently stringent to protect ecological quality whilst others have proved more stringent than necessary. Consequently, some of the proposed standards are less stringent than the existing standards they will replace whilst others are more stringent.
The proposed updates to the 2014 Directions, below, reflect the latest scientific understanding of the standards and needed for a healthy water environment.
- river fish statistical methodology update
- river phytobenthos assessment method update
- loch fish new eDNA assessment method
- loch morphology: bank protection assessment method update
- introduction of spatial standards for fish barrier assessment
- river flow standards changes:
- artificially increased flows in high hydrological status waterbodies
- short term abstraction in good hydrological status waterbodies
- new nitrogen standards for lochs
- invasive non-native species list updates
The following sections of the paper describe these proposed changes in detail.