The key EU law for water policy is the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and its daughter directives, which include the Groundwater Directive and the Priority Substances Directive. The WFD is an essential framework for improving water quality and enables habitat restoration and creation. It requires an increase in water quality through the delivery of river basin management plans, and for no water body to experience deterioration (a recent ECJ ruling in support of no deterioration is now accepted as case law). There is risk that the UK will seek to water down standards, for example by extending the target for achieving good quality from 2021 to 2027 and beyond.
Transposition of the WFD has been only partial to date. In many cases, Defra used existing legislation as evidence of compliance; the Commission informed the RSPB that Defra had submitted 100 pieces of legislation and was reluctant to add significant new legislation, so there are gaps. The most notable are:
Abstraction – the WFD requires comprehensive controls, but the UK’s existing system continues to exempt certain activities and does not guarantee meeting WFD objectives.
Diffuse pollution – the WFD requires controls (Scotland put in place general binding rules) but there has been nothing in England & Wales. Water protection zones were amended specifically to fulfil this requirement, but have yet to be used.
Other important laws affecting water quality are:
Nitrates Directive is vital in controlling fertiliser inputs into the aquatic environment.
The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive controls sewer discharges
The Bathing Waters Directive has resulted in an impressive improvement in the quality of the UK’s beaches and coastal waters with respect to particular faecal pollutants
The Floods Directive has enabled a strategic national approach to managing and mitigating flood risk
Chemicals regulation (see chemicals section above) is vital to avoid water pollution, as it controls pollutants at source
Land management policy including the Common Agricultural Policy and legislation on pesticides and biocides. Baseline measures and compliance around soil management and erosion, nutrients and pesticides are particularly important.
A number of water quality and flood risk requirements are included within the Environmental Permitting Regulations.