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Poland Surface Waters: Navigating the Ecological Challenges

The ecological state of surface waters in Poland, as reported by the Main Inspectorate of Environmental Protection in 2022, does not inspire optimism. Over 94% of waters (examined as “individual parts of surface waters”) failed to achieve the good ecological status required by the Water Framework Directive. When it comes to chemical status, a mere 12% showed a “good state”. It’s crucial to note that in such studies, exceeding the concentration of even one required indicator determines the classification. Nonetheless, the data presented paints a grim picture of water quality in Poland. This is especially significant in the era of advancing climate change.

The report in question reveals a rise in the average temperature in our country by as much as 1.5°C when comparing 30-year periods, namely 1951-1980 vs. 1991-2020. It’s worth mentioning that the average temperature in 2022 was 1°C higher than the last 30-year period mentioned. Such a significant increase in average temperatures should sound alarm bells, as the frequency of extreme events will only escalate with ongoing climate change. Our commitment to adaptive and mitigative actions against climate change can be implemented across various sectors, with a particular emphasis on energy. However, in this article, I’d like to focus on rivers, which serve as the “cardiovascular network of a living ecosystem” that is our natural environment.

A River is Not a Highway

In cases of prolonged heatwaves, which result in both reduced flow and increased water temperature, the biological life of rivers becomes extremely endangered. Last year’s disaster on the Oder River serves as a case in point: according to government institutions, pollutant discharges were in compliance with issued water-legal permits, yet the catastrophe still occurred. So, what can be done to counter such threats? The government and its subordinate state administrative units are attempting to save rivers through LEGISLATION.

To this end, the so-called “Specustawa Odrzańska” (Oder Special Act) has been submitted to the parliament. It’s a unique occurrence in Europe for lawmakers to dictate what should be built, modernized, and renaturalized at specific kilometers along the river, instead of establishing universal principles for the protection of the Oder. While there are positive provisions, such as increased river monitoring, higher fines for illegal sewage discharges, sealing off illegal discharges, and promoting dispersed retention, they are woefully insufficient. Many crucial aspects of biodiversity protection are overlooked, with the focus mainly on hydraulic structures.

Reading the act, one gets the impression that the primary objective, under the guise of river protection, is to enhance its transport capabilities. Many proposed investments diminish the Oder’s resilience to climate change and localized pollutant discharges—especially saline waters—leading to the death of the river as a natural entity. A significant “sin” of the mentioned act is the manner of its preparation, specifically the near absence of dialogue with the public, including non-governmental organizations. After all, a river is not a water highway generating transport profits but a biologically vibrant environment that constitutes a societies collective good.

You pollute – you pay

Contrary to the newly drafted Water Directive (RDW), the special act still allows for permissible amounts of discharges for stormwater overflows. It doesn’t matter whether we discharge 100 times at 1 m³ of sewage—which won’t negatively impact the river’s self-cleaning abilities—or a one-time 1000 m³. It’s the latter that could jeopardize the river’s biological life. The draft legislation contains many troubling provisions, including those related to specific hydraulic investments. There’s a lack of assessment on the impact of these investments on the receiving body of water. There’s also no attempt to study the river’s resilience to sudden discharges and loads of sewage—this raises my strong objection. I wonder if the authors of the act don’t see the difference between sipping one glass of liquor daily for a specific period and downing several liters in one day? The impact of a large amount of alcohol won’t be beneficial for our bodies, phrasing it lightly. Perhaps this is too stark of a comparison, but like alcohol for the body, sewage for surface waters, when administered in large quantities in a short time, can lead to irreversible consequences.

If, after the Oder disaster, the institutions responsible for the cleanliness of our waters want to bring them to a good ecological state, I suggest starting a broad public debate. A substantive debate will allow for the exchange of knowledge and the preparation of solutions that take into account the needs of society, living nature, and the inland economy. An extremely important aspect of actions for the cleanliness of our waters is respecting the principle: the polluter pays, and the one who manages water and sewage benefits. Unfortunately, I only find the first part of this principle in the described draft legislation. Implementing the whole requires respecting the following values: responsibility, knowledge, passion, and perseverance.

Values to guide us

The first of these values — responsibility — is unfortunately often passed around like a hot potato between various administrative units. Let me give you an example of the wall-like obstacles experienced by employees of a company participating in the “Clean River” project on the Motława River. They approached the local municipality through which the final stretch of the river flows, and the municipality, in turn, contacted Polish Waters to secure a container for collected trash. Regrettably, neither the municipality nor Polish Waters supported the initiative, citing either a lack of competence or the need to adhere to financial discipline. Hopefully, after the next elections, there will be fewer such officials or local leaders. It’s the decisions of such individuals and their failure to take appropriate actions that result in the water transparency in the Motława River, located just a few kilometers away in the historic center of Gdańsk, not exceeding 30 cm. For comparison, the average transparency of Baltic Sea waters is around 500 cm. The trash collected during the campaign—mostly discarded by tourists and local residents—was disposed of at the company’s expense. SCANDAL or “business as usual”? Or perhaps the officials are guided by the idea of not touching certain matters. Why should the water in the Motława be clean? What if it turns out that the sediments contain a whole “Periodic Table” of pollutants? By flowing through rivers, most illegal outlets and unregulated runoff from fields can be detected. In the case of our main rivers, the Vistula and the Oder, the primary sources of pollution are saline water discharges from mining areas, diffuse pollution from agricultural lands, and inadequately treated industrial or municipal sewage. All these pollutants eventually end up in the Baltic Sea, which, as we know, is also an endangered body of water. Due to the lack of continuous water exchange with the North Sea and low salinity, the Baltic has limited self-cleaning capabilities. This is evidenced by frequent cyanobacterial blooms (at the time of writing this article, most of the Tri-City beaches were closed) and the recent burst of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which contaminated significant amounts of water with pollutants deposited in the seabed. Despite this, mainly due to rational sewage management in coastal areas, the cleanliness of the Baltic waters is gradually improving. This shows how important responsible water management is in the catchment areas of rivers that feed our sea, and for such good stewards, big applause is due.

The second value — knowledge — determines the scope and possibilities for implementing best practices in water management. The level of expertise in wastewater treatment technology, retention and management of rainwater, sediment management, and intelligent watershed management is continually increasing. Numerous opportunities exist for knowledge exchange in the water environment: specialized conferences, seminars, and webinars are organized both domestically and internationally. Higher education institutions are initiating courses in water engineering and even studies in climate change mitigation and adaptation. One such initiative is the Inter-University Climate Academy (MAK), where students gain knowledge from the best experts and practitioners. I deeply hope that education at all levels will play a significant role in mitigating the climate crisis and restoring clean water in Polish rivers. Leveraging access to the best knowledge, a Gdańsk-based company has developed a concept for an intelligent stormwater overflow chamber. The primary goal of the project is watershed management, which involves managing the flow of rainwater and sewage within designated catchment areas. The project includes the development of a hydrodynamic model with a water demand analysis, spatial planning of the catchment, precipitation sizes and intensities, and determining the load and quantity of sewage and their impact on the receiving body, such as a river or lake. The program promotes large-scale, dispersed retention and cleaning technologies based on natural methods (NBS).

Values like passion and perseverance belong to the social domain. Non-governmental organizations, foundations, businesses, and ultimately, the civic society, hold the authorities accountable to ensure that when creating laws and fighting for clean water, the voice of the community is heard. Perhaps it’s worth reaching for broader technical, environmental, and legal arguments to meet the European Union’s requirements for clean rivers? With the common good in mind, I believe that substantive discussions involving all stakeholders will yield positive results.

Legal Entity Status for the Vistula River

Is solving the problem of river pollution simple? Trendy terms exist, like SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT and DATA MANAGEMENT. To manage something [in this case, bodies of water – water management ], you need reliable data. This data should be publicly available and continuously updated. I advocate for the centralized collection of data on the quantities and loads of discharged sewage. An essential aspect of such a database should be its accessibility to every citizen. There are already cities in the world where anyone can see when and how much was discharged into the river, what load of pollutants was released, and what impact it had on its biological balance. These cities include Yorkshire [United Kingdom], Hamilton [Canada], and Washington [USA].

Beyond data transparency, some countries are introducing legal entity status for rivers, especially those important to a particular region. A river with a legal persona can more effectively defend itself against excessive exploitation or predatory management. Anyone who contaminates it must face the consequences. In Canada, granting legal entity status to the Magpie River has preserved its wild character and protected the heritage of the indigenous tribe inhabiting its watershed. Other rivers with legal entity status include the Whanganui in New Zealand and the Klamath in the United States. Ecological institutions have also taken steps to grant legal entity status to the Colorado River.

Perhaps our Vistula deserves this as well? After all, it is one of the wildest and largest rivers in Europe. Or maybe, to protect its rights, we should establish an Ombudsman for our largest and most polluted rivers, such as the Vistula and Oder? We will ask these questions during this year’s Stormwater Poland conference in Katowice on September 28. I am curious about the public opinion on this matter. We will invite the best specialists from Poland and abroad to the discussion. These will include engineers, hydro technicians, and ecologists. Perhaps a substantive debate will bring us closer to providing special protection for our water heritage?

Doesn’t the ‘wild’ and clean Vistula — our national treasure — deserve special protection? It may turn out that, for the broadly understood common good, the Vistula will better fulfill its role by supporting the inland economy. We will soon know opinions on these interesting issues. To better prepare for the September debate, I invite you to an open discussion on our blog today:

Wojciech Falkowski