The Water Framework Directive (WFD) was transposed into Irish law by the European Communities (Water Policy) Regulations 2003 (Statutory Instrument 722) in December 2003.  The Directive provides an excellent legal structure for managing the many threats to Ireland’s waters in an integrated way. It represents a legal requirement to carry out water protection and water management measures, which are integrated, targeted and which ultimately must be effective in achieving the overall objective of at least ‘good status’ for Irish waters by 2015, or with derogations, by 2027.

The implementation of the WFD raised many scientific, technical and administrative challenges for Ireland.  Due to investment, mostly in outside expertise, many of the initial technical and scientific challenges have been addressed.  Whilst the level of communication and liaison between some government bodies has increased, this was from a very low base.  The administrative challenges, ten years on then, have yet to be significantly addressed if the necessary integration is to be achieved.  Without it Ireland will not meet our obligations under the Directive.

Water Framework Directive implementation in Ireland

The River Basin Management Plans required by the Directive for each of seven River Basin Districts in Ireland have now been published.  These set out the current state of our waters, the threats to them and they propose some broad approaches to how these may be addressed.  The main criticism of these Plans is that they are not specific enough in terms of proposing defined actions to deal with well-known pressures on our waters.  However, they still represent significant progress, if they are implemented in full.  The Plans are the result of a comprehensive 6-year exercise in surveying, monitoring and mapping all the waters of Ireland, including looking at what is posing the greatest risk.  This work has resulted in an important database of baseline scientific information on our rivers, lakes, coastal and groundwater, which will be an invaluable reference for years to come.

The Water Policy Regulations 2003 identify the Environment Protection Agency as the ‘competent authority’ with responsibility for coordinating WFD implementation in this country. The Department of Environment Heritage & Local Government (DEHLG) has primary responsibility for policy and legislation relating to water and is therefore also responsible for over-seeing implementation and for providing necessary financial support. The overall ‘Water Director’, charged with overseeing the process in Ireland is a senior official in the Water Quality Section of DEHLG.

In practice though, the ‘on the ground’ work of implementing the WFD must take place at River Basin District level. In accordance with the Directive, the country has been divided into 7 separate ‘River Basin Districts’. To see which RBD your area is in, consult the River Basin District map of Ireland here. River Basin Districts (RBDs) are the natural units for the management of water, as they contain either one or more connected river ‘catchments’. A catchment consists of the area of land, including lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater and estuaries – that drains ultimately into a single watercourse and into the sea at one point. This element of the WFD is particularly welcomed by the environmental and scientific communities, as it acknowledges that water is no respecter of county or even international boundaries and so much be managed accordingly. This approach does however pose the significant challenge of effective coordination between the local authorities in each RBD, making the continuation of a strong form of RBD – level management and co-ordination vitally important.

Responsibility for implementation of WFD measures in each RBD lies collectively with all the local authorities within that region. In each RBD a lead local authority has been appointed which will act as the coordinating authority. Under the National Development Plan, over €40million was provided for the setting up of River Basin Management Projects in each RBD to coordinate and oversee the initial implementation phase of the directive and to carry out a lot of the technical work outlined above.   These offices have been the driving force behind the river basin planning process and the fact that their futures are now in jeopardy is cause for great concern.

Implementing the River Basin Management Plans

As required by the WFD, the Plans set overall targets in water quality and status to be achieved by 2015 (Except where exemptions apply).  They also propose measures as to how these targets will be met.  Many of these measures involve legislation which is already in place.  The Plans propose full and correct enforcement of this legislation. There is a strong argument that the main problem in Ireland, is indeed not lack of legislation but lack of enforcement, therefore, notwithstanding gaps in the legislation, proper implementation and full enforcement of all current legislation would improve the status of many of Irelands waterways.  The weakness of the Plans is that they do not propose how this full enforcement will be carried out, resulting a concern amongst SWAN groups that the Plans may result in very little change.

Integrated Water Governance

SWAN welcomes the acknowledgement in the Plans that current administrative structures are acting as an impediment to river basin management and that a full review of water governance structures will be carried out. This review must result in an overhaul of the current fragmented structure and a structure with a strong RBD remit and the power to enforce WFD obligations across all government departments.  Only then will we see the co-ordinated, integrated, river basin focused management approach that is needed to protect our rivers, lakes, coasts and groundwater.