Water quality in river Special Areas of Conservation

There are nine river Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in Wales designated under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended) (‘Habitats Regulations’) – Cleddau, Eden, Gwyrfai, Teifi, Tywi, Glaslyn, Dee, Usk and Wye. These rivers support some of Wales' most special wildlife like Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussel, white-clawed crayfish and floating water-plantain. Water quality is crucial to the functioning of the river systems and the wildlife they support. One of the substances of most concern is phosphorous.

Why phosphorus in rivers is an issue

Phosphorus is naturally occurring, and is released slowly, at low levels, from natural sources such as natural bankside erosion.  Human activity is also responsible for phosphorus being released into the environment due to the way we manage our land and how we dispose of our wastewater and sewerage.

Elevated concentrations of phosphorus can lead to the process of eutrophication and can cause significant ecological damage to rivers including altering the balance of plant species in our rivers. 

Phosphorus in river Special Areas of Conservation

In January 2021 we published a report in which we presented our assessment of compliance against recently tightened phosphorus water quality targets for SAC rivers.

The report showed that over 60% of SAC water bodies were failing the new targets for phosphorus. Most of the failing water bodies were in mid and south Wales. Notably, the Usk failed in 88% of its water bodies and on the Wye and Cleddau 60% of water bodies were found to be not meeting their targets. Parts of the Teifi and the Dee also failed to meet their targets, but the Eden, Gwyrfai, Glaslyn and Tywi met them fully.

Read the ‘Compliance Assessment of Welsh River SACs against Phosphorus Targets’ report.

Why the new targets were introduced

Targets are in place to protect the environment. The new targets were set to safeguard SAC rivers for the future based on advice from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), who coordinate UK conservation targets. The revised SAC phosphorus targets are 50-80% tighter than the previous targets for the SACs.

Read more about common standards monitoring on the JNCC website

The legal position

In 2018 the Court of Justice of the European Union handed down its judgment on the ‘Dutch Nitrogen’ cases. As a result of the decision, the approval of new developments which will lead to increased nutrients in a SAC which is already exceeding target levels, will be limited. In Wales, this affects how the assessment of development plans and projects under the Habitats Regulations should be interpreted and applied. 

SAC Rivers Project

A SAC Rivers project has been set up in NRW to address some the issues around how water quality is managed and regulated across our SAC Rivers in Wales. Its objectives include:

  • Working with others to develop new policy, positions, advice and tools to protect and improve to water quality in SAC rivers
  • Understanding water quality across the SAC rivers and identifying where improvement measures are needed
  • Ensuring we have an appropriate programme for gathering and assessing evidence of water quality in the SAC rivers

The project is wider than phosphorus and includes the other water quality attributes. Six workstreams have been identified to cover:

  • Position statements and advice – includes advice to Local Planning Authorities
  • Standards and compliance – includes setting of targets and compliance against them
  • Water quality improvements – includes advice on potential solutions and involvement in Nutrient Management Boards
  • Monitoring and evidence – includes ensuring monitoring programmes are appropriate and reviewing the evidence of water quality and its impacts on the SAC rivers and their features
  • Permitting- includes review of existing permits, permitting process and guidance for discharges
  • Materials to land – includes spreading of materials to land including manures and slurries, waste materials and sludge.

What this means for Local Planning Authorities

Planning Authorities will need to consider the new evidence when making planning decisions and will need to be satisfied through their Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) that new development proposals will not result in damage to a SAC.

Read more about our advice to planning authorities

What this means for permitting

NRW will need to consider the new evidence and targets when completing a Habitats Regulations Assessment in support of our assessment of permit applications.

We will also need to review whether the emission limits for discharges to a SAC catchment area included within existing water discharge and installation permits are sufficiently protective to support the achievement of its conservation objectives. 

Read more about our permitting advice

Farming and agriculture

You can find guidance on a range of farming and land management issues, including disposing of waste sheep dip, disposing of disinfectant and storing silage and slurry on our farming page.

Visit our farming and land management guidance page

What we are doing to improve our SACs?

We are developing a collective approach to developing long term, catchment-scale solutions to address the issues of nutrients in our SAC rivers in Wales.

We are working with stakeholders including Welsh Government, planning authorities, Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water and the farming sector to develop solutions that will achieve this.

Welsh Government (WG) has established an Oversight Group to provide high level governance since the issue affects many sectors.  The group includes representatives from the relevant WG policy departments and key stakeholders to provide a focus for a collaborative multi sectoral-response.

River Basin Management Plans

The River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) in Wales outline a programme of measures necessary to prevent further deterioration, work towards achieving good overall status and support the achievement of the conservation objectives for SAC rivers.

Read more about the River Basin Management Plans.

LIFE Projects

Originally funded by the European LIFE Nature and Biodiversity fund, the LIFE River Dee project started in September 2019 and will run for 5 years. The total project value is around £7million with additional funding by NRW, Environment Agency, Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water (DCWW) and Snowdonia National Park Authority.

Read more about the LIFE River Dee Project

NRW has received the grant agreement for a large river restoration project across four SAC rivers: Teifi, Tywi, Cleddau and the Usk which aims to improve the condition of the river habitats and the protected species they support. The total project value is £9.13m; this is 60% funded by the EU and 40% from the project partners: NRW, Welsh Government, DCWW, Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, Woodland Trust, River Restoration Centre and Coleg Sir Gar.

River restoration projects

In addition to above we are developing our River Restoration programme across Wales, including restoration in parts of some of our SAC rivers not covered by LIFE funding.  Funding has already been secured for planning and delivery of river restoration in the Eden, Dee, Cleddau, Teifi, Tywi and Usk SACs.

Incident management

Pollution incidents can compromise the water quality and a SAC rivers ability to achieve favourable conservation status.  Therefore, managing incidences to minimise their impact on the environment and reduce occurrence is a key part of our work. We respond to reported environmental pollution incidents 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Our integrated incident categorisation allows us to use a risk-based approach to prioritise our work to ensure we secure the highest benefits to the environment, people and economy of Wales.

Preventing incidents from occurring in the first place is our goal, to ensure natural resources are appropriately managed, and is an intrinsic part of our incident preparation and regulatory work.

Opportunity Catchments

Parts of the Dee, Usk, Wye, Teifi and Cleddau SAC rivers fall within the boundary of NRW’s Opportunity Catchments identified in the RBMPs. These will focus on delivery of longer term multiple benefits for waterbodies, water-dependent habitats and species, and wellbeing.

Actions will be included to deliver wider river health and resilience as well those aimed at reducing nutrient inputs and improving water quality.

Find out more about opportunity catchments

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