20 years in the European Union, and we still don’t know who is responsible for water

20 lat w Unii Europejskiej

Twenty years have passed, some would say like a day. Such an anniversary prompts summations. I for one have recently realized that as a society, after joining the EU, we have created such a complicated system of water management that we can’t figure it out. As my professional seniority extends beyond our presence in the EU, I recall a time when the concept of a water company was widely known and established thanks to more than seventy years of tradition.

Poland’s current water management system can definitely be called too complicated. Water is handled by a number of institutions. Do we know which one to turn to when needed? Do we know which one is responsible for providing us with water for consumption, and which one is responsible for the quality of the water in the river? The answer is not at all that obvious.

Wody Polskie to be liquidated – this slogan has taken on special meaning in recent days, as industry rumors have been gaining momentum. Will the institution actually be renamed? We have no official confirmation, but we do know that we have such a complicated water management system that all we should expect is to simplify it. The fact is that the first swallows announcing changes have already appeared. Last month, information on a draft law amending the Law on Collective Water Supply and Collective Sewage Disposal and the Water Law was published in the list of legislative works of the Council of Ministers .

The objectives of the project read that the main rationale for initiating the procedure for amending the regulations is the criticism of local governments against the current regulations for approving tariffs and the way in which Wody Polskie discharges its role as a regulator of water prices. Of course, a number of speculations about price increases followed the publication, which undoubtedly has merit. Water prices will go up. By how much? We will most likely find out early next year. In doing so, it should be remembered that water prices in the country vary widely and, unfortunately, do not depend on the quantity or quality of the resource, but on the financial condition of the seller.

But back to the competence thread – who is responsible for water in Poland? I will focus on two aspects: the water we have in our taps and the water that is in the environment – our rivers, lakes, the Baltic or groundwater. I purposely omit side threads, as this is meant to be an article for you – the readers of Water Matters, and not just for the industry, which is familiar with these competencies. There is a school saying: what was and isn’t is not written in the register.

And in this article I will also take this direction. I won’t write about the history of water management or the 100 years of the Water Law. I will focus on what we, as users, need in our daily functioning. As I wrote in the introduction, this article was not based on my beliefs about the lack of public knowledge about water management, but on the situation I have been dealing with in recent days.

Water on tap

The key word in this case is municipality. It is the local government that has a statutory task – to supply residents with water and drain them of sewage. What does this task consist of and how does it accomplish it? Unfortunately, none of the people outside the industry interviewed knew. We usually identify the water utility as the entity responsible for supplying us with water and collecting wastewater, and it is often the intermediary with whom we have a contract. However, it is the local government that decides on the organizational and legal status of the entities responsible for carrying out tasks related to water and sewerage services.

Accordingly, it is he who determines whether the responsibility for providing these services will rest with the municipal company, a company formed with other entities, or with the municipal budget company or directly with the municipal office. In addition, these decisions require an indication of whether one or more such units will operate in the municipality. Therefore, often the very name, operation and competence of the water and sewerage service provider differs from one municipality to another.

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pic. Boris/Adobe Stock

Can the municipality say no to residents?

The answer is – no, it cannot refuse to fulfill its statutory obligation to supply its residents with potable water. This is not just a legal opinion, but a view well-established in case law. At this point, it is worth citing a 2007 ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court. (ref. II OSK 1085/06), which stated that residents of a municipality have a legitimate right to expect that the municipality, even if it has not provided a collective water supply, should at least guarantee that water available from other sources meets sanitary requirements and is safe for health.

The verdict stressed that according to the Law on Municipal Self-Government and the Law on Collective Water Supply and Sewage Disposal, the municipality has an obligation to meet the needs in this regard. The legal basis is also provided by EU directives: the Directive 80/778/EEC on drinking water quality and Directive 91/271/EEC on urban wastewater treatment, which confirms the municipality’s obligations in this area. Moreover, the local government cannot refuse to perform its statutory duties and try to pass them on to residents. The SAC also refers to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland in this context, stressing that the municipality, as the basic unit of local government, is obliged to perform public tasks that are not reserved by the Constitution or laws for other public authorities.

Water in the environment

This time, the key, at least as of the date of this writing, remains the Polish Waters. According to the Water Law, as of July 20, 2017, water resources in Poland are managed not by administrative division, but on the basis of hydrographic units – catchment areas and river basins, according to the rationale of the Directive 2000/60/EC. The owners of the waters are both the Treasury and legal entities (including the local government) and each of us.

Of course, not everyone can become the owner of any water – flowing public waters and the land covered by these waters are not subject to civil trade, although there are statutory exceptions. In Poland, each of us is entitled to the general use of water. It includes the right to use public inland surface waters, internal marine waters and the waters of the territorial sea, unless otherwise provided by law.

On the other hand, the Polish Water Authority’s responsibilities include. flood and drought protection, protection of water resources, exercise of ownership rights over public waters, and billing and collection of fees for water services. Based on current regulations, Wody Polskie also plays the role of regulator approving water and wastewater tariffs. In other words – they are on guard against water price increases. This issue, as I wrote earlier, is set to change this year by returning these powers to local governments. In accordance with the provisions of the Water Law Act and the provisions of Directive 2000/60/EC (the Water Framework Directive), water management and planning activities are carried out on the basis of a number of planning and program documents.

About how don’t drown in procedures, I wrote some time ago in the pages of the Water Matters. Thus, if we need a water permit (we want, for example, to discharge treated wastewater into a river or drill a well for our business) or we want to make a water permit notification (we plan, for example, to set up a bathing area), we should notify the Polish Water Authority of such intention, following the appropriate procedures. As editors, we realize that these procedures are not simple and obvious to everyone, so in each issue of our newspaper you will find step-by-step instructions on how to proceed in a specific case of water use. What’s more, each of the previous publications is available to you online.

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pic. Shaiith79/Depositphotos

I am convinced that in the context of water knowledge, a drop drills the rock. Therefore, if at least a few people in Poland have learned something more about water management, the text has done its job. In submitting this article for publication, I realize that I have not listed a number of institutions responsible for water issues, but as I mentioned, this was not my intention. But you have to start somewhere.


Photo. main: Sophie Dale/Unsplash

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