The Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive and Its Effect on Restoring Disused River Navigations

The ‘Water Framework Directive’ (WFD), enforced in 2000, required European Union member governments to incorporate it in national legislation within three years. DEFRA is the government department responsible in England and Wales, and the Environment Agency is the Competent Authority responsible for delivering results.

The WFD requires that the ‘ecological status’ of every ‘water body’ is assessed. Water bodies may be catchments of a large stream, lakes, or sections of main river between gauging stations (or a groundwater body or a section of coast).  Surface water status for rivers is assessed on the basis of the following quality elements:-

Biological elements

  • Composition and abundance of aquatic flora
  • Composition and abundance of benthic invertebrate fauna
  • Composition, abundance and age structure of fish fauna

Hydromorphological elements supporting the biological elements

  • Hydrological regime
  • Quantity and dynamics of water flow
  • Connection to groundwater bodies
  • River continuity
  • Morphological conditions
  • River depth and width variation
  • Structure and substrate of the river bed
  • Structure of the riparian zone

Chemical and physicochemical elements supporting the biological elements

  • General
    • Thermal conditions
    • Oxygenation conditions
    • Salinity
    • Acidification status
    • Nutrient conditions
  • Specific   
    • Pollution by all priority substances discharged into the water body
    • Pollution by other substances discharged in significant quantities into the water body

Overall ecological status is determined from the lowest ranking status of each of the three elements. So ‘poor’ hydro-morphology causes an overall ‘poor’ ecological status score (regardless of the actual biological and chemical status, though it must be recognised there are interactions).

The Environment Agency is tasked with preparing River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) on a cyclic basis every six years. RBMPs define actions that will improve the overall ecological status of every water-body within each River Basin District that is not already ‘Good Ecological Status’ or ‘Good Ecological Potential’. If the process does not happen or defined actions or targets for improvement are not met then the Environment Agency may be fined by the European Union.

RBMPs are prepared (to date) in consultation with ‘stakeholders’ in ‘River Basin District Liaison Panels’ (RBDLPs). These include some recreational/navigation representatives but the vast majority of ‘stakeholders’ represent wildlife trusts/projects, fishing and landowner bodies. Policies are developed by consensus in a series of workshops. This methodology ensures that most proposed navigation-related policies focus on reducing environmental damage caused by boats.

The hydro-morphological policies (driven by the ‘majority’ of RBDLP stakeholders) generally propose removal of weirs, structures and embankments (including those constructed or modified for navigation purposes). This is despite evidence from previous removal of weirs that this does not create a ‘natural’ channel but instead simply drops water levels far below those existing prior to construction of the navigation. The result of these policies is an unnaturally fast and narrow stream in a straightened course that reduces flooding of riparian water meadows and so increases downstream flooding. It is argued that, in the very long term and provided all obstructions are removed, then the river will naturally return to its natural state. However, that implies removal of long-term constraints applied by farmers and any form of unnatural training (such as prevention of the erosion required to allow the bed to build-up).

In the early days of implementation of WFD a methodology of ‘pragmatic solutions’, proposed in an EA briefing paper “The Hydromorphological Challenge”, was applied. In one extreme case a 300 year-old weir retaining a mile-long pound was demolished without notice following a local consultation in which EA proposed preservation and modification of the weir. Local outcry in that particular case did subsequently cause EA to seek far greater involvement with other parties, including navigation interests, in future plans for that former navigation.

DEFRA funding for WFD is the only large new funding stream in the EA. It has financed twenty-five ‘Action Areas’ in England and Wales for implementation of the hydrological aspects of the WFD. These are being led by a variety of bodies, including ‘River Trusts’, The National Trust and EA themselves. Engineering consultants are being employed to develop proposals up to design status. A touchstone standard is projects undertaken by the River Restoration Centre. Removal of weirs, embankments and structures is their mantra.

The intention of the original EU proposal was to remove all hindrances to returning water bodies to a natural state i.e. Good Ecological Status (GES). This cannot be done for working navigations and some former river navigations (that generally fall within the WFD Designation of ‘Artificial’ or ‘Heavily Modified Water Bodies’ (HMWB)). These are considered incapable of achieving ‘Good Ecological Status’, so the target is changed to ‘Good Ecological Potential’ (GEP) that makes allowance for weirs, etc. The difficulty for those restoring former navigations is that they may not be able to "claim" GEP (since they are not a working navigation); so ‘Good Ecological Status’ (GES) must then be achieved.

Resulting problems for navigation restoration are:-

  • i) Ultimately, WFD-driven morphological projects will be applied to the majority of rivers including nearly all former-navigations
  • ii) In the shorter term, WFD objectives will be taken into consideration when restoration projects apply for (a) licences to work within ten metres of a ‘main river’ and (b) abstraction licences (which are required for lockage even if all abstracted water is immediately returned below locks).

Potentially these problems might be addressed by:-

  • i) Applying for listing of all disused navigation structures, including locks, weirs and accompanying embankments required for them to function. Listing’s drawback is that subsequent restoration works require (a) the consent of local authority conservation officers, who resist any material that is not totally authentic and (b) planning permission if it is decided that restoration is ‘new work’. Listing guarantees EA would consult English Heritage prior to any WFD morphological work, making preservation of the structures near certain. However, water levels might still be changed by cutting new channels to by-pass (and thus render non-functional) the old navigation structures.
  • ii) Getting close to EA. Being part of their consultation processes and ensuring that navigation ‘stakeholders’ appear at every meeting and workshop. When kept close (especially at a senior level) they can be amenable to reasoned argument, especially as EA Corporate Strategy is about people as well as the environment and, at the end of the day, the EA are protecting the environment for people to enjoy and one way to enjoy it is navigation.

These are uncertain times. WFD puts enormous power into the hands of a few people to potentially disrupt (indeed totally prevent) restoration of river navigations.


See full information on the Water Framework Directive

River Restoration Centre

See the documents used by Maidenhead Waterways Restoration Group to gain its exemption under Article 4.7 of the directive - the first UK waterway restoration group to achieve this - under the 'Economic Case Studies' section.