Water maintenance plan – need or necessity?

Plan utrzymania wód

A long, long time ago… I remember when the first (and so far the last) water maintenance plan (PUW) was created. It was treated as a legal invention. Or even as a necessary evil and bending to the ideology of environmental organizations. Some said: we give a finger – they will take the whole hand and we can’t do anything. For others – the long-awaited standardization of conducting work in riverbeds. Prior to the implementation of the PUW, an environmental impact assessment, in accordance with the October 3, 2008 law, was not mandatory when conducting maintenance work. On sharing information about the environment and its protection, public participation in environmental protection and environmental impact assessments.

Water maintenance plan – the eye of the NGO

The blame for maintaining waters without meeting habitat and species protection standards has usually been placed on the provincial Water Reclamation and Management Boards (WZMiUW). But it was sarcastically pointed out that if the Regional Water Management Boards (RZGW) had as much money for maintenance as the WZMiUW, their operations would be no better.

WWF in the document Summary and interpretation of the results of the report Inventory and evaluation of the natural effects interfering with the hydromorphology of rivers of ‘maintenance’ works carried out on the watercourses of the provinces of Łódź, Podkarpacie, Podlasie, Małopolska, Mazovia, Opolskie, Świętokrzyskie, Warmińsko-Mazurskie, Wielkopolskie, Zachodniopomorskie in 2010-2012 – a study based on tender announcements posted on WZMiUW websites and the results of questionnaires sent to these institutions, and supplementing this report with data from 2013 indicated the need to develop maintenance work plans for rivers as a matter of urgency. The NGO also stressed the need to close the legal loophole of the imprecise definition of maintenance work and to develop a catalog of maintenance work as a matter of urgency.

Water maintenance plan – with a practitioner’s eye

In 2014, an amendment to the Water Law (OJ. 2014 pos. 850 Law of May 30, 2014. On Amendments to the Water Law and Certain Other Acts) introduced the need for a water maintenance plan. It was to be in effect for six years, and its adoption should be preceded by an environmental impact forecast. The first work on the plan began in 2015. The atmosphere was heated even among the administrators – Regional Water Boards and Water Reclamation Boards. There were two, three or more WZMiUWs per RA. Each institution operated on annual maintenance plans, the vast majority of which depended on funds allocated annually for necessary work.

There were a number of uncertainties around the creation of the plans. How to plan activities 6 years ahead – in the absence of financial perspectives and clearly defined rules for financing tasks in subsequent years. The basic question raised was whether the maintenance plan is a maintenance needs plan or perhaps a financial capability plan. Added to this was the difficulty of interpreting the legislature’s intent in defining what is a maintenance activity and what is not. The 2014 law defines it as work involving:

  • Mowing plants from the bottom and banks of inland surface waters;
  • Removal of floating and rooting plants in the bottom of inland surface waters;
  • Removal of trees and shrubs overgrowing the bottom and banks of inland surface waters;
  • Removing natural and man-made obstacles from inland surface waters;
  • Backfilling of breach in the banks and bottoms of inland surface waters and their biological development;
  • to make inland surface waters passable by removing blockages that impede the free flow of water and removing silt and debris;
  • repair or maintenance owned by the water owner:
    • Regulatory structures and insurance within these structures,
    • water facilities;
  • Demolition or modification of beaver dams and backfilling of beaver burrows in the banks of inland surface waters.

Interpretive difficulties included. The definition of a shoreline or regulatory structure. Because can the removal of trees and shrubs from the spit be counted as shoreline maintenance activities? And is the removal of beaver burrows on the embankments also a maintenance activity that should follow from the plan? Can the removal of blockages that impede the free flow of water be done along the entire cross-section of the watercourse – how free is the flow to be? Interpreting the filling of potholes in the banks and bottoms of inland surface waters was also quite a challenge – because isn’t pouring a truckload of stone into the water completely unreasonable, and maybe it’s better to somehow stack and wedge the stone so it doesn’t flow with the nearest larger water?

A series of discussions and concerns resulted in the various water administrators agreeing on the final version of the draft plans. Impact projections were prepared for the first PUWs, and the documents were subjected to consultation. The forecasts were met with a backlash from environmental organizations. The comments often included negative voices from NGOs. They concerned the accumulation of maintenance activities in places where they are not necessary. The interpretation of the concepts of maintenance activities was also subject to criticism.

The Naturalists’ Club pointed out, among other things, that in the case of building up potholes with stone, we are not dealing with “filling in potholes,” but rather with the construction of an aquatic device – a stone bank band, and this already goes beyond the scope of water maintenance. There was also a different interpretation regarding the removal of trees and shrubs from the spit. To quote the Naturalists Club, The removal of trees from flood-prone areas does not fall within the catalog of maintenance work specified in Art. 22 para. 1b of the Water Law (covering the removal of trees from the bottom and banks of waters, but not from floodplains) and cannot be the subject of a water maintenance plan at all.

Critical comments were numerous, and the first PUW was subject to changes and clarifications according to the suggestions that resulted from the document’s consultation. There have even been further versions of plans and further forecasts for some regions. The first documents were approved by ordinances of the individual Regional Water Management Board directors. The PUWs were to be in effect for six years. In the meantime, the Water Law has been amended, which indicated, among other things. The need to adopt new water maintenance plans by December 21, 2021. This did not happen because the Water Authority did not submit the projects to the governors for approval.

Water maintenance plan – liberalization of records?

The law made modifications to the definition of maintenance of public waters and added a point to the old statutory wording regarding the possibility of carrying out maintenance activities also those not resulting from the plan, if they do not have a significant impact on the achievement of the environmental objectives referred to in Art. 56, Art. 57, Art. 59 and in Art. 61. The provision seems expedient in terms of the possibility of carrying out off-plan activities, because, after all, not everything can be predicted 6 years ahead. But note, for any such task, it must be proven that it does not have a significant impact on the achievement of environmental goals.

In the current law, the provisions on the scopes for developing maintenance plans have remained almost unchanged from the first plans. According to Art. 227 of the Water Law, maintenance of surface water and maintenance activities, are carried out for a specific purpose, as indicated by the legislature. Thus, their conduct should be justified, preceded by a thorough analysis of needs, and then evaluated in terms of impact on the state and natural resources. The legislature only removed from the scope of the plan the action on repairing water facilities and replaced it with a provision on repairing or maintaining insurance within water facilities. This change will mean that the new plan will not include renovation activities dedicated to water facilities. It seems that the change is correct, since the renovation of the device to more specific to the construction law, not water law.

Water maintenance plan – here and now

The tender sites of the Polish Water Authority have announced and awarded the tender for the construction of the PUW. The subject of the order is the development of drafts of eleven planning documents for the areas of operation of the Regional Water Management Boards, together with a strategic environmental impact assessment. The water maintenance plan was announced as a unified document for all regions – this is positive news. Negatively perceived is the short timeframe for the task, which may not be sufficient to produce 11 extensive documents with impact projections.

Environmental organizations are already looking at the new order. On the page of one of them you can read: In our opinion, a naturalist who wants to know the threats to a river of interest should look at these lists as soon as possible and protest the intentions of harmful activities as soon as possible….

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