Who are the competent authorities for the UK?

The following have been designated competent authorities for the UK:

    England and Wales The Environment Agency (EA)
    Scotland The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
    Northern Ireland The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS)

The duties of these competent authorities include:

  • Acting as the government’s agent by providing advice, developing relationships with other statutory bodies and working with those regulated.
  • Completing the characterisation of water bodies and implementing the monitoring programme.
  • Developing the river basin management plans, including the programmes of measures, for each RBD and consulting with stakeholders and the public.
  • Implementing the approved programme of measures to secure the agreed environmental objectives.

Whether economic analysis is part of the remit for the competent authorities depends on the UK region. In England and Wales it is the responsibility of Defra supported by the EA and Ofwat (the water services industry regulator).

In Scotland it is the responsibility of SEPA. In Northern Ireland it is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development. Note that final approval of the river basin management plans and the programmes of measures is the responsibility of:

  • The Secretary of State in England
  • The Welsh Assembly in Wales
  • The Scottish Ministers in Scotland
  • and the Government in Northern Ireland.

How were River Basin Districts identified?

Under the Directive the basic management units for river basin management planning are the river basin districts that may comprise one or more river basins. They encompass lakes, streams, rivers, groundwater and transitional waters (estuaries) together with the coastal waters into which they flow. In the natural state, their ecology will depend on such factors as their hydromorphology1 and their physico-chemical state.

Coastal inlets and bays also influence the ecology of river basins, for example, fish such as sea trout migrate to the headwaters of rivers and streams to breed, the young fish eventually returning to the sea. For the purposes of the Directive, a river basin district can therefore be defined as a group of neighbouring river basins and their associated, linking coastal waters.

Nine river basin districts have been designated as located entirely in England and Wales, namely the Anglian, Dee, Humber, North-West, Severn, South-East, South-West, Thames and West Wales river basin districts.

One has been identified entirely in Scotland, namely the Scotland river basin district, whilst the Northumbria and Solway - Tweed river basin districts are shared with England.

In Ireland, the North Eastern river basin district is the only one entirely in Northern Ireland. The province shares with Republic of Ireland the Shannon, Neagh Bann and the North Western river basin districts.

The Irish situation provides the only examples of the international management of river basin districts in the British Isles. The situation is different in continental Europe where implementation of the Directive for major river basins such as the Rhine and the Danube will require significant international co-operation.

    1The hydromorphology of a water body is defined by its hydrological regime (quantity and dynamics of flow, level, residence time, and the resultant connection to groundwaters) and morphological conditions (depth variation, quantity and structure of the substrate, and both the structure and condition of the riverbank or shore zone).

Where are the UK River Basin Districts?

There are nine river basin districts wholly within England and Wales:

    1. Anglian
    2. Dee
    3. Humber
    4. North-West
    5. Severn
    6. South-East
    7. South-West
    8. Thames
    9.West Wales

A detailed map can be viewed and downloaded at:


There are two Cross Border river basin districts between England and Scotland:

    1. Northumbria
    2. Solway - Tweed

A detailed map of the Northumbria river basin district can be viewed and downloaded at:


A detailed map of the Solway and Tweed RBD can be viewed and downloaded at:


Note that the remaining part of Scotland is defined as a single River Basin District.

There is one river basin district wholly within Northern Ireland:

    1. North Eastern

A detailed map can be viewed and downloaded at:


There are three International river basin districts between Northern Ireland (UK) and the Republic of Ireland:

    1. Shannon
    2. North Western IBRD (covering Erne-Foyle-Swilly and Melvin basins)
    3. Neagh Bann IBRD (covering the Lough Neagh River Basin Carlingford Bay and Dundalk basins)

A detailed map can be viewed and downloaded at:


Note that the Directive requires that river basins which cross national frontiers must be assigned to an international river basin district and the Member States involved must together ensure the co-ordination of measures for its implementation.

What are the components of the River Basin Management Planning Process?

The river basin management planning process comprises nine identifiable components, a number of which have overlapping timescales.

  • Assessment of the current status of the river basin districts: their characteristics, the impact of human activity and an economic analysis of water use.
  • Setting environmental objectives for identified water bodies in the river basin districts: including the establishment of reference standards2 and the classification of water bodies.
  • Establishment of monitoring programmes for each water body: to meet surveillance, operational and investigative needs.
  • Gap analysis: essentially determining for each water body any discrepancy between its existing status and that required under the Directive.
  • Setting up programmes of measures: the means by which water bodies’ good status will be preserved or restored, as appropriate.
  • Development of the river basin management plan: essentially the pulling together of all the elements considered to date firstly in draft form for public consultation and then in final form for approval by Ministers.
  • Public information and consultation: the process by which stakeholders and the public are informed of progress with Directive implementation and consulted on the draft river basin management plans.
  • Implementation of the programme of measures: basically the period over which the measures in the plan are executed.
  • Evaluation of effectiveness of the plan and the programme of measures: the core of a six-yearly cycle of plan updates with the new plan being in place once the previous plan period is ended.

These components, in terms of Directive Articles and timescales, are shown in Table 1, page 2, which illustrates the ambitious scope of the Directive. Unlike the EC Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, which principally involved actions by sewerage services providers, the Water Framework Directive requires actions by a wide range of players. Industry, agriculture, local authorities, planning bodies and others whose activities impinge on the water environment will also be involved in the achievement and maintenance of environmental objectives that will be legally binding. Complying with the implementation timetable will therefore be a major challenge.

However, it is clearly recognised that the timetable is tight and that existing information will have to be used extensively during the development of the first river basin management plans. To allow for this and for changing pressures within the river basins, the Directive provides for the updating of the plans every six years with implementation of the new plans following immediately on completion of the old.

    2Under Annex II of the Directive, each Member State needs to prepare reference conditions for each type of surface water body (including hydromorphological and physico-chemical quality elements).

The Ribble Basin – the UK’s pilot river basin

As part of the implementation of the Directive a pilot river basin network has been established across Europe.

The Ribble Basin in England’s northwest region is the UK’s pilot river basin and is being used to develop a model river basin management plan and to test ways in which local interested parties can best become involved in the process of identifying solutions for the effective management of the water environment?3

    3 ‘A Vision for the Ribble Basin’ produced by the WWF and the Environment Agency

What does the assessment of current status mean?
(Articles 5, 6 & 7)

The assessment of current status is a vital first step in the planning process since it provides the baseline information concerning the river basin districts. It identifies the types of water bodies present in each river basin district for which environmental objectives must later be set, the pressures upon them and any special features that must be taken into account. These features are consistent with the application of sustainable development principles and comprise for each river basin district:

  • An analysis of its characteristics
  • A review of the impact of human activity
  • An economic analysis of water use
  • The establishment of a register of protected areas including the identification of waters used for the abstraction of drinking water.
  • These aspects are considered individually below.

What is meant by Characterisation of the
River Basin Districts?
(Article 5)

The Directive covers all waters: inland, transitional (estuarial) and coastal. Coastal waters extend for one mile off shore for ecological status requirements and to all territorial seas?4 for chemical status.

The initial characterisation of the river basin districts involves the identification of the water bodies that comprise it. A water body is a coherent sub-unit in the river basin to which environmental objectives will apply. Directive requirements for the characterisation and the subsequent setting of objectives are different for surface waters to those for groundwaters.

For surface waters, the characterisation process requires the river basin district to be sub-divided into the different water categories: rivers, lakes, transitional waters (estuaries) and coastal waters. Each category is then sub-divided into types based on physico-chemical and hydromorphological factors that might significantly influence the presence and abundance of plants and animals in and about the surface water body. Local factors that may influence water status can be taken into account when identifying water bodies, such as pressures and impacts, protected areas and water use, for example, for water supply, navigation, cooling water, etc.

    4 The waters in the 0 – 12 nautical mile zone from the coast.

At this time any heavily modified water bodies or artificial water bodies in the river basin will be provisionally identified. These constitute individual water bodies for which different, somewhat relaxed, environmental objectives may be set. Heavily modified water bodies are water bodies that, as a result of alterations by human activity, are substantially changed in character, for example, a river that has been altered from its natural state by channelling to prevent flooding of urban or rural land. Artificial water bodies are water bodies that have been created by human beings, for example, a reservoir built for water supply purposes or to provide canal feed-water. Different surface water body types are illustrated in Figure 1, below.

Figure 1
Examples of the designation of surface water bodies

Examples of the designation of surface water bodies.

A body of groundwater is a distinct zone of an aquifer. An aquifer is a distinct geological stratum of sufficient porosity and permeability to allow a significant flow of groundwater that, if it entered a body of surface water, might be expected significantly to affect its ecology. A further criterion is that the flow should be sufficient to allow abstraction at a minimum rate of 10m3 of drinking water per day. The majority of UK groundwaters are covered by these criteria. The degree of sub-division of aquifers into water bodies is for Member States to decide, on the basis of the particular characteristics of their river basin districts. A hierarchical approach to the delineation of bodies of groundwater is illustrated in Figure 2, below.

The outcome of this process of typology is the identification of water bodies with like characteristics that can be placed in a series of groups for which reference standards denoting good status may be developed.

Figure 2
A hierarchical approach to the designation of bodies of groundwater

A hierarchical approach to the designation of bodies of groundwater.

What is required by the Review of the
Impact of Human Activity?
(Article 5)

This review includes the identification of the significant pressures to which the surface and groundwater bodies in the river basin district may be subjected and the risk these pose to the achievement of Directive environmental objectives.

For surface water bodies these include significant pressures and risks associated with:

  • Point and diffuse sources of pollution from urban, industrial, agricultural and other installations and activities.
  • Water abstractions for urban, industrial, agricultural and other uses, including seasonal variations and total demand, and loss of water in distribution systems.
  • Water flow regulation, water transfer and diversion.
  • Morphological alterations to water bodies.
  • Land use patterns including the main urban, industrial and agricultural areas and major fisheries and forests.
  • Other significant anthropogenic impacts.

For groundwater bodies these include significant pressures and risks associated with:

  • Abstraction for drinking water, industrial, agricultural and other purposes. Volume and rates of abstraction, chemical composition, etc.
  • Discharges to groundwater with location, rates and chemical composition, etc.
  • Land use in the recharge catchment of the groundwater body.
  • Variations in water-table levels.
  • Pollution sources.

Note that a significant pressure is one that on its own, or in conjunction with other pressures, may lead to a failure to achieve one, or more, objectives of the Directive. So the relationship between water bodies within a river basin district is important since, for example, pollution downstream may occur as a result of upstream discharges to a water body.

Risk assessment entails determining the magnitude and cumulative effects of these significant pressures and the characteristics of water bodies that determine their susceptibility. It is also necessary to identify any significant upward trends in water pollution and the criteria for establishing the starting point for trend reversal.

The timescale for the review of the impact of human activity is short and the initial outputs are needed before the new monitoring procedures are in place. The task is being undertaken using existing methodologies and information and, where there is uncertainty, using the precautionary principle. The assumptions and uncertainties will be set out when the review is published.

Economic Analysis of Water Use
(Article 5)

Economic analysis is a key element of the river basin management planning process. The role is illustrated in Figure 3 (below). The first stage of the economic analysis of a river basin district includes the following activities.

The economic analysis of water use: assessing how important water is to the economy and socio-economic development of the river basin district and initiating investigations of likely trade-offs between socio-economic development and water protection. The process will provide the economic profiling of the river basin districts in terms of general indicators.

The economic input to the establishment of a base-line scenario: investigation of the dynamics of the river basin districts will aid the assessments of forecasts of key economic drivers likely to influence pressures on water bodies and therefore their status. This includes reviewing changes in general socio-economic variables, key sector policies that influence water use, economic growth and planned investment linked to existing water regulation.

The assessment of the current levels of recovery of the costs of water services: this is concerned with water service provision, the extent to which financial, environmental and resource costs are recovered, how cost recovery is organised and the way in which key water uses contribute to the cost of water services.

Preparing for cost-effective analysis and investigating ways of enhancing the information and knowledge base.  Analysis of the cost effectiveness of river basin management plans is required later. At this stage, the aim is to recognise gaps in existing data, and the means to deal with them, and to collate information in a format that will be useful later.

Figure 3
The role of economic analysis


Register of Protected Areas
(Articles 6 & 7)

A register is needed for each river basin district indicating details and the location of protected areas and the legislation under which they have been designated. Although not exclusive, the Directive lists the following:

  • Areas that are either used, or are intended to be used, for the abstraction of drinking water for human consumption (Article 7).
  • Areas designated for the protection of economically significant aquatic species.
  • Bodies of water designated as recreational waters, including bathing waters designated under Directive 76/160/EEC.
  • Nutrient-sensitive areas including areas designated as vulnerable zones under Directive 91/676/EEC and areas as sensitive areas under Directive 91/271/EEC.
  • Areas designated for the protection of habitats or species where the maintenance or improvement of the status of water is an important factor in their protection, including relevant Natura 2000 sites designated under Directives 92/43/EEC and 79/409/EEC.

What are the outputs from the Assessment of Current Status?

The assessment described above will provide an understanding of the river basin district in terms of:

  • The nature of its constituent water bodies and their grouping into types with like characteristics.
  • Situations where there are risks to the achievement of good status for surface and groundwaters.
  • Situations where higher levels of protection are necessary.
  • Heavily modified and artificial water bodies where only good ecological potential is possible.
  • Possible situations where other derogations may be needed.
  • An economic analysis of water use, its importance to the community, pressures on resources and how cost recovery is undertaken.

This initial assessment provides the basis for the development of the environmental standards necessary to achieve good status for the water bodies identified and for the development of the monitoring of surface water status, groundwater status and protected areas.

Setting Environmental Standards

The are two mutually dependant developments needed before environmental standards can be determined for the various water body types. They are the derivation of a classification system to be applied to all water bodies so as to assess the extent of their deviance, if any, from good status and the determination of type-specific reference standards representative of each class and the boundaries between them.

The Classification System for Surface Water Bodies

The reason for the grouping by type of each water body in a river basin district is to allow the identification of reference standards of the ecological conditions appropriate to each water body group if each were in a pristine state. Since the purpose of the Directive is to maintain water quality, where this is already at least of good status, and to restore waters failing to achieve this, it is essential to have an effective means of classifying the status of the various types of water bodies. The Directive requires that water bodies be classified in accordance with the following ecological status system using biological, hydromorphological and physico-chemical elements set out in Annex V of the Directive. The classification for surface water bodies is as follows.

High status. Very little, or no, anthropogenic alteration to the physico-chemical and hydromorphological quality elements and biological quality elements expected for the type of water body in pristine condition.

Good status.  Reflecting undisturbed conditions or minimal disturbance. Values of the biological quality elements for the water body type show low levels of distortion resulting from anthropogenic activity but deviate only slightly from those normally associated with the water body under undisturbed conditions.

Moderate status.  The values of the biological quality elements for the water body deviate moderately from those normally associated with that body under undisturbed conditions and show moderate signs of distortion resulting from anthropogenic activity and are significantly more disturbed than under conditions of good status.

Member States may further classify waters as Poor or Bad to reflect stages of deterioration beyond Moderate status.

Reference Standards for Surface Waters

Whilst the Directive indicates in qualitative terms the nature of the hydromorphological, physicochemical and biological elements to be included in the assessment of the status of water bodies, it does not give quantitative values for these elements. These values are to be identified for each water body type in each eco-region through an EU-wide, harmonised inter-calibration exercise.

This should ensure that:

  • Member States use comparable ecological quality assessment systems and harmonised ecological quality criteria.
  • Ecological criteria are agreed for the designation of sites of good ecological status.
  • Agreed numerical Ecological Quality Ratio values are established for the class boundaries between high-good and good-moderate classes.

The Ecological Quality Ratio for a water body is simply the ratio of the observed biological value to the reference biological value. It is close to one for a water body exhibiting high status and close to zero for a water body exhibiting bad status.

This inter-calibration exercise will cover all surface water body types and may include heavily modified and artificial water bodies to facilitate the identification of maximum, good and moderate ecological potential for an alternative classification system for such water body types. It is intended that the inter-calibration exercise be completed by 2006.

Classification of Groundwater Bodies

The classification of groundwater bodies is not as complicated as that for surface waters, although the monitoring of change to groundwater status can be very complex. Groundwater bodies are classed as of good status when both their quantitative status and their chemical status are good, that is, when direct and indirect abstractions have minimal effect on the water body’s ability to support dependant ecosystems and when it complies with Directive requirements for maximum levels of defined pollutants.

Outputs from the Classification of Water Bodies

The classification process provides the basis for the following:

  • Identification of the characteristics of good status for all groups of water bodies.
  • Establishment of the current status of all water bodies (using existing data).
  • Determination of where action is needed.


The Water Framework Directive is being implemented through a series of key steps involving the identification of competent authorities to manage the development and implementation of river basin management plans which are at the heart of the legislation.

This Information page describes the key steps involved.

Further information on what is required by the Directive, based on an introductory guide published by the Foundation for Water Research, is provided in the accompanying Information pages:

The UK Technical Advisory Group (UKTAG)
(http://www.wfduk.org) is a partnership of UK and Ireland environment and conservation agencies which provides co-ordinated advice on technical aspects of the implementation of the Directive.

How was the Directive transposed into UK law?

The transposition into UK law was a complicated issue in the UK since the responsibility for river basin management is generally devolved to the regions. It was necessary to identify the river basin districts before transposition, since some transcend regional boundaries and in Ireland some cross international boundaries. Accordingly, the responsibility for UK river basin districts is as follows:

  • For river basin districts entirely in England, the Secretary of State (Defra) and, for those entirely in Wales, the National Assembly for Wales. Where river basin districts cross boundaries, the Secretary of State and the Assembly acting jointly.
  • For river basin districts entirely in Scotland, the Scottish Government and, for those entirely in Northern Ireland. the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland).
  • Both the Northumbria and the Solway-Tweed river basin districts straddle the border between England and Scotland and needed separate consideration.
  • Three river basin districts overlap between Northern and Southern Ireland and these are the only truly international ones in the UK. The responsibility for the part of these river basin districts in Northern Ireland rests with Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland) and international protocols are being developed to deal with cross-border issues.

The transposition process was completed with the adoption of the following National legislation.

  • The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2003.
  • The Water Framework Directive (Implementation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003.
  • The Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003.

Further Regulations were necessary to cover the two river basin districts shared between England and Scotland.

  • The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (Northumbria River Basin District) Regulations 2003.
  • The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (Solway Tweed River Basin District) Regulations 2004.

What is the timetable for implementing the Directive?

The timetable for the implementation of the Directive is given in Table 1 below, which indicates the principal related Articles. The river basin planning process is cyclical and the Directive requires periodic updates to the river basin management plans and associated programmes of measures on a six yearly basis.

For ease of presentation the components of the planning process are discussed separately. In reality, the timescales for action overlap in many cases.

Table 1
Water Framework Directive - Implementation Timetable




Dec 2000

Directive enters into force


Dec 2003

Requirements transposed into national law



River basin districts and competent authorities identified.


Dec 2004

For each river basin district:


  • Complete analysis of river basin characteristics including a review of pressures and human impacts on water status. Identify heavily modified and artificial waters.


  • Economic analysis of water use.


  • Establish a register of protected areas and identify waters used for the abstraction of drinking water.

6, 7

Dec 2005

Identify significant upward trends in water pollution and criteria for establishing the starting point of trend reversal.

5, 17

Dec 2006

Establish environmental monitoring programmes.


  • Publish, for consultation, work programme for producing the first river basin management plans.


  • Establish environmental quality standards for substances included on the first priority list and controls on principal sources.


Dec 2007

Publish interim overview of significant water management issues in each river basin district for consultation.


Dec 2008

Publish draft river basin management plans for consultation.


Dec 2009

Finalise and publish first river basin management plans:


  • designate heavily modified water bodies


  • set environmental objectives


  • finalise programme of measures to meet objectives.


Dec 2010

Ensure ‘true cost’ water-pricing policies are in place.


Dec 2012

Ensure that programme of measures is operational.


  • Publish timetable and work programme for second river basin management plans.


  • Report interim progress in implementing measures.


Dec 2013

Review first river basin management plans and publish interim view of issues for the second river basin management plans.


Dec 2015

Achieve environmental objectives specified in the first river basin management plans.


  • Finalise and publish the second river basin management plans with revised programme

13, 14

  • of measures (to be achieved in 2021)



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