17th March

Be(a)ware of the Water Framework Directive!

Rick Boelens, Lough Derg Science Group

The Water Framework Directive (WFD), introduced in December 2000, requires EU countries to maintain or restore good ecological and chemical quality in all surface and underground waterbodies − from mountain streams, through lowland rivers and lakes − to estuaries and lagoons (transitional waters) and coastal waters up to one nautical mile from shore.

This ambitious goal is to be achieved in stages, marked by a series of planning and reporting deadlines, with overall compliance by 2015.

The environmental benefits of the WFD are potentially very great and generally will be welcomed by everyone. But the WFD comes at a price. At present, only a small circle of organisations and State agencies are sufficiently well informed to comprehend the full implications of the Directive. So far there has been surprisingly little public debate on the topic. As almost every Irish citizen will be affected by the Directive, this cannot continue indefinitely. Why, one wonders, is the government PR machine so silent on the matter?  Could it be that some of the measures required by the WFD might prove unpopular?

 The socio-economic impacts fall into two categories: constraints on human activities that affect water and costs associated with the implementation of the Directive.

Rigorous regime

Previously, water management was designed to ensure that waterbodies remained suitable for the various human uses of water e.g. drinking, swimming, fishing, irrigation and so forth. The WFD heralds a far more rigorous and ecocentric regime. By focusing on ecological as well as chemical values, we will henceforth need to be much more careful in the way we use water and the waterbodies that contain it.

Changing characteristics of waterbodies without affecting their ecology is not easy. Some established practices do have ecological effects and might have to be modified or even prohibited. Overall, we will have less freedom in the use of water than before.

Meeting the reference values
The WFD presents an array of technical challenges. Each year countries must submit to the Commission evidence of how conditions in the hundreds of waterbodies monitored differ from their assigned reference values.

Only waterbodies at risk from man-made changes require regular monitoring. Nevertheless, an initial assessment suggests that almost 2,800 river waterbodies and 130 lakes will need to be monitored annually. Add to this around 80 transitional and 25 coastal waterbodies, and Irish monitoring teams face the task of collecting, analysing and interpreting samples from at least 3,000 locations.

The number of samples per waterbody will vary depending on the nature of the risk and the size of the area affected. Sampling frequency will be dictated by various factors including seasonal (climatic) variability. In short, the total number of measurements is unknown, but potentially enormous.

Sampling is not just a matter of filling bottles with water. WFD environmental quality indicators span a range of chemical, physical and biological parameters, some of which entail complex and time-consuming surveys and sampling procedures. Procedures for ensuring the reliability (accuracy) of measurements are notoriously expensive. Assessments of fish, plankton and other invertebrate communities, for example, typically involve the use of boats and specialised equipment, and two or more trained operators that may restrict sampling to one or two locations per day.

Logistical nightmare
Clearly, this huge monitoring requirement presents a logistical nightmare for WFD programme managers in Ireland’s seven River Basin Districts. In assessing requirements for manpower, field and laboratory resources they will be conscious of the fact that for some indicators, the optimum sampling period is quite short, the same in all districts, and very few experienced personnel are available nationally to carry out the work.

The interpretation of monitoring data will not be easy either. For one thing, the WFD does not recognise the existence of climate change. The effects of climate change are already evident in the water environment and are predicted to become increasingly influential over the next 20-30 years. This could mean that ecological reference values set in the next year or so might become less reliable as time goes by, and at some stage they would need to revised. Separating man-made changes from climate-induced changes is likely to involve some delicate research. 

Is it possible, as the government insists it should be, that all WFD monitoring and research requirements can be carried out with existing scientific resources?  As the scope of WFD monitoring is far greater than before, this seems unlikely.

So, does anyone know the full extent of our monitoring obligations, and associated research requirements, and how much they will cost?  Will the figures be revealed to Irish taxpayers?  Now, in the 5th year of WFD implementation, such questions are just too important to remain unanswered.

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