Water runs through EIA

18th June 2012


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NEAS explains how it embeds assessment under the Water Framework Directive into EIA

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) (2000/60/EC) introduced a new strategic planning process for managing, protecting and improving the water environment. One of its aims is to improve the ecology of water bodies, and it recognises that changes to the shape and flow of a groundwater body, river, estuary, lake or coastal water will have an impact on its ecology.

As a result, the National Environmental Assessment Service (NEAS), which manages the Environment Agency’s assessment of its own development plans, needs to consider WFD-related issues when assessing projects.

In addition to establishing ways to improve a water body, the WFD places greater emphasis on implementing better environmental options, and demands robust and transparent assessment.

NEAS has found that environmental impact assessment (EIA) is an effective way to integrate these considerations and influence project development. By embedding WFD assessment in EIA, NEAS has created significant efficiencies, benefiting the overall project development process.

Starting early

The need for WFD assessment starts with screening, as issues generated by the Directive could trigger the need for a statutory EIA – for example, if deterioration cannot be avoided.

It is important not to collect too much information too early, however – a proportionate appraisal is needed before making such an early judgment call. Gathering information on relevant water bodies, their characteristics and the elements likely to be affected will be required.

This will help identify what the key issues are likely to be, improve consideration of the inter-relationships between issues – for example, between hydromorphology and ecology – and contribute to the start of any cumulative effects assessment.

Another important activity facilitated by EIA is finding the right consultees to engage with when assessing a project. The WFD is an integrated approach, so the skills needed tend to be from a range of specialist areas, such as vegetation, geomorphology and fisheries, for example. NEAS has found that early consultation with appropriate experts is the key to successful scoping.

Consideration of the WFD at the early screening and scoping stages of the EIA process is important and must continue throughout options appraisal with assessment of compliance against the preferred option. This promotes efficiency, so options are not developed that would fail the WFD article 4.7 tests – an assessment to ensure that options support the maintenance and future achievement of good ecological status or potential.

Options, assessment and reporting

In many of the projects assessed by NEAS, the WFD provides an underpinning to ensure a wide range of potential options are considered in flood risk management projects, including environmental options that seek to work with or promote natural processes. The iterative identification of impacts and mitigation helps NEAS develop preferred, and ultimately sustainable, options.

It is worth noting that there are important differences between EIA and the WFD. For example, impacts in the overall EIA can be minor, moderate or major but the WFD requires a firm decision as to whether an option is compliant or not. Levels of acceptable uncertainty are therefore lower for the WFD than for some associated EIA components.

Integrating the WFD assessment clearly and succinctly in the environmental statement topic chapters, as well as including a clear WFD statement in the conclusion, is the most efficient reporting mechanism. However, if the WFD issues are complex or need resolution before the production of the statement, a separate assessment may be required.

NEAS seeks to ensure that clear statements on WFD compliance are present in its environmental statements and in internal business cases for flood risk management funding. Statements also set out the achievement of WFD objectives, legal compliance and the project’s overall contribution to sustainable development.

Monitoring is a particularly important but often neglected aspect of EIA. NEAS works closely with project teams to ensure appropriate pre- and post-construction monitoring is in place and adequately funded. This is vital to embedding the WFD as well as providing an additional compliance safeguard, ensuring corrective action can be taken if predicted effects do not occur.

Demonstrable improvement

The overall process of environmental assessment has been effectively used by NEAS to integrate the work necessary to consider whether a project is compliant with the requirements of the WFD.

The process also promotes the Directive’s overarching objectives: to protect and enhance the water environment. And it allows NEAS to demonstrate that it meets the legal compliance requirements for “no deterioration”, does not prevent the achievement of “good status” or “good potential” and is contributing to the delivery of the UK’s river basin management plans.

Slad Brook flood alleviation

The preferred option for Slad Brook flood alleviation scheme in Gloucestershire included two flood storage areas.

The scoping consultation predicted significant negative impacts, in relation to fish passage and loss of gravel spawning areas, due to siltation. This was considered likely to both cause deterioration of the whole water body and prevent future improvements.

The first approach was to develop a long list of mitigation measures, but even with these in place, deterioration and restrictions on future improvement were still predicted.

These issues contributed to a rethink by the project team. An earlier, and better environmental option, which had previously been dismissed, was revisited and through the integration of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) work into the appraisal was ultimately reselected as the preferred solution.

The revised option, which comprises catchment-scale land management activities and individual property protection, meets the flood risk objectives, but is compliant with WFD, as with a stronger environmental basis it works better with natural processes.

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