Environment Agency’s Hydropower Good Practice Guidelines

Response from the Wild Trout Trust – Sept 2011

Introduction


The Wild Trout Trust (WTT) is a registered charity whose primary aim is the conservation of brown trout Salmo trutta across the British Isles.

WTT currently has 2500 subscribing supporters and works more widely with an extensive network of community groups, NGOs and governmental agencies, including extensive partnership with the Environment Agency (EA), to protect and enhance habitat not only for brown trout but more broadly the fauna and flora around the inland waters of the British Isles.

This response to the Hydropower Good Practice Guidelines (GPGs) consultation, launched in July 2011, is based on the premise that protection of the aquatic environment in England & Wales must be a primary function of the EA, enshrined in law. For example, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 imposes on “public authorities” (including EA) a duty for conservation of biodiversity, including brown trout amongst many listed species. Additionally, the Environment Act 1995 places a specific duty on Ministers (and thus the EA) to further the conservation of fauna of special interest when considering proposals for development. Across Europe, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires Governments to protect and improve the water environment. Against these legislative responsibilities, the potential gains from hydropower are trivial (according to the EA’s own figures, significantly less than 1% of current electricity demand in the UK and very much less for England and Wales) and yet the ecological costs from widespread hydropower development are likely to be great.


Consultation question 1
Are there other effects (both positive and negative) which should be considered on a cumulative basis?

Whilst many of the ecological impacts of impoundments upstream and downstream of single weirs are understood, the cumulative impacts from multiple weirs and fish passes are not. The draft guidelines recognise that there has been “little monitoring of the ecological impacts of low head hydropower schemes” and that “in-combination effects of sequences of fish passes along a river can be severe” and those “cumulative impacts may be significant”. In this context, the requirements of NERC 2006, Environment Act 1995 and WFD, the impacts of multiple schemes on aquatic biota should militate against consent for development or, at the very least, necessitate high levels of detail in environmental impact assessment and associated scrutiny by EA.

The GPGs fail to recognise the ecological significance of migrations of ‘non-migratory’ trout in inland waters. For example, the GPGs specifically recognise that brown trout go upstream but not apparently that they come down. The science of salmonid population genetics is increasingly pointing to the uniqueness of many trout populations; their conservation should be paramount.



Consultation question 2
We would value your comments how these cumulative effects should be considered and assessed.

We are strongly of the view that EA should coordinate developments within catchments, including hydropower; a strategic approach is needed. Currently, hydropower development seems to be progressing in an ad hoc manner, without the necessary level of scrutiny and in a manner that is inconsistent with a coherent strategy for consent and regulation of multiple schemes. There are concerning details in the guidelines that will make assessment of cumulative effects impossible. For example, we are concerned at the acceptance of non-compliance with flow targets, even over (undefined) short stretches. Subtle changes to flow are recognised as an environmental cue to trigger migration in fish and it is iniquitous to accept non-compliance that will so fundamentally affect a wide range of fish species such as salmon and trout.

Furthermore, Section 7.1 empowers developers to provide their own monitoring and recording systems; this is completely unacceptable because it will lead to inconsistencies in collection of data and enforcement of non-compliance. The new section 1.5 absolves the developer of any need to monitor the potential effects of hydropower development where the revised GPGs are followed; this is not supportable in the context of dynamic ecosystems such as rivers.

We welcome the notes of caution over hydropower development expressed throughout the guidance. However, there remains a fundamental paradox in guidance for development of technology whose contribution to electricity demands in England and Wales is trivial, where its ecological impacts may either be negative or poorly understood and where the developers themselves have latitude for non-compliance (e.g. of flow) and no necessity to monitor the effects of their development.


Consultation question 3
Can you suggest ways in which additional protection can be provided for weir pools (where they have been identified as having special importance)?

The GPGs make no attempt to define what it is that constitutes a weir pool and should do so for clarity.

Weir pools of particular significance and thus at most risk should be assessed by on a site-specific basis, perhaps by specialist area EA teams. Pools may be significant as resting areas for migratory fish or in providing diverse habitat in uniform river reaches. Again, the concept of acceptance of developers’ non-compliance with flow targets is totally unacceptable in protection of weir pools as significant habitat features.


Consultation questions 4
a. Would you propose any changes to the flow tables for low head schemes?

YES

4b. Please provide your reasons and any supporting evidence

We cannot agree to a concept of ‘one size fits all’. Rivers are highly complex environments deserving of site-specific assessment. Research supports the need to maintain natural flow regimes (high, moderate and low flow events) in depleted river reaches to support the variety in habitat required by lotic communities.

In addition, there is an apparent presumption in the GPGs that climate is not changing, thus fundamentally influencing the assumptions underpinning the flow tables. As we anticipate a higher frequency of extreme flows (especially low flows, drought conditions), the pressure on trout stocks will increase and indeed is already increasing. We suggest that Salmo trutta is one the most sensitive fish species to an increased frequency of drought conditions, as expected (if not already occurring) in the southern parts of England and Wales at least. If the conservation of the species is to be furthered and the responsibilities of Government and its agencies are to be discharged, the focus of any HEP development must be only on win-win sites.


Consultation question 5
What are your views on including a requirement to ensure fish passage around all new weirs?

There should be a presumption against the construction of new weirs and, in pursuance of GES or GEP under WFD, weir removal should be the priority to restore naturally functioning rivers and aquatic ecosystems. Where removal is not possible for valid reasons, unrestricted and safe passage (upstream and downstream) is vital for all relevant fish species (and other biota) at all life stages.

The guidance is evidently equivocal in its stance. For example, sections 3.3 and 3.5 appear to recognise the requirement for fish pass installation whilst 8.1 introduces the less reassuring words ‘normally’ and ‘may’ with regard to fish pass provision. This is unacceptable.

In the past, many weirs were created without fish passes, either due to an absence of migratory species when they were constructed (e.g. polluted industrial rivers), or a lack of legislation to cover the species that were present (coarse fish and trout). We believe that this creates a situation where weirs that are redundant at present, and should be removed, gain the potential for a second lease of life through hydropower. When developed for hydropower these structures are still unlikely to require the provision of fish passes if only coarse fish and ‘non-migratory’ trout are present. The result may be that the life of many structures will be prolonged by hydropower development, without the installation of fish passes, when they should have ordinarily been on a list for removal, as obligated by WFD.


Consultation question 6
Are these revised screening and by wash requirements adequate for the protection of fish as part of the design of hydropower schemes?

NO

Please provide your reasons and supporting evidence

There is extensive literature on the potential impacts of different HEP technologies although the work to date on Archimedean Screw systems is simplistic, superficial and inadequate.

WTT recommends that site-specific assessments are required for all installations and that fish should be physically excluded at all times from all HEP schemes, both at the inlet and, where there is significant risk, at the outlet channel.


Consultation question 7
New weirs: Do you agree with this? Y/N

NO

Please provide your reasons and any supporting evidence

Whilst the presumption by the EA against new weirs on lowland rivers is to be welcomed, we would wish for a more unequivocal statement on this issue. Furthermore, a more precautionary position is required on smaller, upland streams to protect significant and unique brown trout populations, as has been demonstrated, for example, on the Dart catchment (Griffiths et al, 2009). These headwaters may also be nursery areas for migratory salmonids and thus extremely vulnerable to any backwater effects (and many other impacts) from new weirs.


Consultation question 8
Do you agree with our general approach towards raising weirs as of hydropower schemes?

NO

Please provide your reasons and any evidence to support them

There is a need to clarify what is meant by ‘raising weirs’.

As described above and in line with attainment of GES under WFD, the position most ecologically beneficial is weir removal or lowering. As such, where wild fish resources are present or where the potential exists for their future colonisation, we would be against any weir raising except if the effects could be categorically proven to be negligible or could be totally mitigated.

Again, we would wish to see EA taking a more robust position against weir raising than is suggested by the opening sentence of Section 1.2: “We do not encourage raising weirs”.


Consultation question 9
Do you have any suggestions for criteria which might be helpful when assessing more than one application for hydropower schemes on the same weir or impoundment?

Subject to adequate EIA, there should be a presumption by EA to permit only one scheme per weir unless there is an ecologically valid reason for not doing so. We would support the comprehensive response submitted by the fishery and conservation NGOs:

Multiple schemes on one weir pose a number of problems:
• How is the ‘available water’ allocated?
• Who has prior call on any allowable abstraction above a Hands Off Flow?
• Who is liable if a Hands Off Flow or other licence condition is breached?
• Who would be the defendant in any case taken by interested parties whose legitimate interests were damaged?
• Who is liable if the part of the weir owned by one person is damaged by a scheme on the part owned by another?
• How is the potential divided attraction flow to upstream and downstream migrating fish towards offtakes/outfalls instead of the desired route to be prevented? It is more difficult even than single schemes.
• [What happens in locations with historic water rights involving multiple off-takes?]

Given the difficulties posed by these questions there is no sense in allowing more than one development especially as it effectively splits the generating potential with no overall renewable energy benefit. In principle this is no different from the means by which water available is shared for consumptive abstractions along a river, i.e. first come first served. The EA’s regulatory responsibilities are not well served by it attempting to act as a broker between potential developers.


Consultation question 10
Do you agree with this approach to the permitting of high head schemes?

NO

Please explain with evidence what other model/criteria we should use.

Head waters and small catchments are known to contain significant and unique brown trout populations (see response to Question 7 above) and may very well act as nursery areas for important, migratory populations of salmonids and ongrowing eels. The guidance at 1.4 recognises the potential for harm in the ‘depleted’ reach often associated with high head schemes and the need for further work “to assess the sensitivity of particular species to hydrological change in the deprived reach”. Additionally, flow splits may strongly impact on the environmental cues triggering fish migration and spawning.


Consultation question 11
a. Under what circumstances should environmental monitoring (pre and post scheme) be required in association with the development of a hydropower scheme?

We strongly believe pre and post environmental monitoring should be required to gain information on the impacts of all schemes where native fish are ordinarily present and/or where we do not already have sufficient information to show no/minimal impact of the scheme on the surrounding ecosystem and associated biota. At the moment we do not believe this information exists for any scheme designs, and therefore we seek an extensive programme of monitoring to reduce this uncertainty. We are strongly of the opinion that developers should not be absolved under any circumstances of a requirement to monitor the impacts of their schemes and that the guidance should state this position unequivocally.

However, it is widely accepted amongst fishery biologists that, because of natural variation within fish communities, it may be extremely difficult (if not impossible) and expensive to demonstrate statistically that a scheme has had an impact on a fish population, even though that impact is quite large. Thus, the veracity of the results of fishery surveys, especially on large rivers, is doubtful.

b. What aspects of the environment should be monitored?

A full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should be required, with the caveats noted above. It is also necessary to define the requirements of programmes to monitor the impacts of HEP schemes.

c. Who should fund this monitoring?

The cost of monitoring should be incorporated into the cost of the scheme, therefore the developer. We cannot accept that developers be allowed to develop their own monitoring schemes. These should follow defined protocols and be open to EA and independent scrutiny. Additionally, the EA should undertake regular (annual) and independent evaluation of the impact of HEP schemes.

The Government and its associated bodies, e.g. the EA and Defra, should fund the catchment planning and cumulative impact research.

Consultation question 12
Please let us know of any further points that you feel have not been captured in this consultation. If it relates to a specific piece of text it would be useful if you could cross reference it. If not please identify the issue clearly and provide any supporting evidence.

WTT supports the concept of renewable energy but we believe that the guidance can and should be unequivocal in its support for the aquatic environment, endorsed by available science of the potential for ecological harm from hydropower installations and a precautionary approach in areas where, as the guidance recognises, there are vital gaps in our knowledge. Whilst those gaps remain, the presumption should be against consenting of hydropower schemes rather than consent and post monitoring.

HEP should only be permitted where minimal impact on the environment can be demonstrated or where there is overwhelming public interest, such as very large energy-producing schemes.

The process of application and consenting of HEP schemes should be transparent with details of licences publicly accessible.

EA should undertake independent monitoring and evaluation of HEP schemes at an annual cost to the operator, including unannounced site inspections.

EA should be prepared to regulate and act decisively when required to do so by licence failures. Non-compliance with licence conditions is not acceptable.




- END -