Water Framework Directive

The water framework directive is a framework for the protection of:

  • Groundwater
  • Coastal waters
  • Inland surface waters
  • Transitional waters.

It has the objective of preventing and reducing pollution, promoting sustainable use, environmental protection, improving ecosystems, and managing floods and droughts.  The objective is to meet good, ecological, and chemical status for all community waters by 2015.

States must identify all river basins within their territory and assign them to river basin districts.  States must designate a regulator for the application of the rules.

The framework directive requires analysis of each river basin district and the preparation of management plans for them taking account of the result and analysis.  These must be implemented by 2012.  The objective is to prevent deterioration and hence restore bodies of water, achieve good chemical and ecological status, protect, enhance all bodies of groundwater, prevent pollution of them, ensure a balance between groundwater abstraction and replenishment, and preserve protected areas.

From 2010, member states must ensure water pricing policies, provide adequate incentives for users to use water resources efficiently and that the various sectors contribute to the recovery of the cost of water services.  Arrangements must be undertaken to ensure effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties in the event of breaches of the requirements of the directive.

There is a list of priority substances from amongst those which prevent a significant risk to the environment.

Bathing Water

There are several directives requiring states to ensure minimum water quality or requiring measures to protect against water pollution.

There are minimum quality criteria to be met by bathing water.  They cover:

  • physical, chemical, and microbiological parameters
  • limit values
  • the minimum frequency of sampling and analysis

Member states fix the guidelines for bathing waters in accordance with EU guidelines. The water concerned is surface water used for bathing except for swimming pools, confined water subject to treatment or used for therapeutic purposes.

Member states must monitor their bathing waters.  They must determine the duration of the bathing season annually and draw up monitoring calendars.  At least four samples should be taken per season.  The interval should not be more than one month.

Bathing waters must be assessed at the end of every season on the basis of information gathered in that season and the three preceding ones.

Waters must be classified in accordance with criteria into one of four quality levels; poor; sufficient; good; excellent. The “sufficient” count free is the minimum threshold that must be attained by the end of 2015.  Where water is classified as poor, member states should take steps in terms of managing the waters.  They should ban bathing giving notice advising against it, provide information to the public and take suitable corrective measures.

Information regarding the classification and description of bathing waters and possible pollution should be made available to the public in an easily accessible manner and near the area concerned using suitable communications.

Surface Water

An  EU directive lays down quality standards applicable to surface water.  It sets out the requirements in relation to the presence in surface water of certain pollutants and substances which are identified in the directive on account of the risk they pose to or through the aquatic environment. There are 33 priority substances including PCBs, mercury, cadmium, lead and benzene.  Twenty of them are classified as hazardous.

There are different types of standards.

  • The average value
  • concentration over a one year period.
  • the maximum allowable concentration of the substance at a specific point in time.

There are different standards for inland surface water such as rivers and lakes and other surface waters such as coastal and territorial waters.

Member states must ensure compliance with the standard.  They must verify the concentration of substances and ensure that they do not increase significantly.

For each river basin, states must establish an inventory of emissions, discharges, and losses of the substances identified.  The Commission must verify by 2018 whether the objectives of gradually reducing pollution from the relevant substances and discharges has been achieved.


There is a directive on the protection of groundwater.  The purpose is to prevent the discharge of certain toxic persistent and other substances into groundwater. There are two lists of substances which are specified

  • Direct charge-discharge of list 1 substances is prohibited.
  • Discharge of substances in list 2 must be limited.

All indirect discharges in list 1 or direct or indirect discharges in list 2 are subject to prior authorisation.

The authorisation must be granted after an investigation into the receiving environment. It must be granted for a limited period and subject to review. It must lay down conditions and failure to comply should lead to the withdrawal of the authorisation.

The authorities of member states must keep inventories of authorisations.  They must inform each other in the event of discharges into transboundary groundwater. Every 3 years, member states must draw up reports on the implementation of the directive.

There is an EU directive establishing a framework to prevent and control groundwater pollution.  This includes procedures to assess the chemical status of groundwater and measures to reduce pollutants. Groundwater is considered to have good chemical status when nitrate levels do not exceed 50 mg/l.

The levels of certain high-risk substances must be below threshold values including ammonium, arsenic, cadmium, chloride, lead, mercury, sulphate. The concentration of other pollutants must conform to good chemical status. If a value is exceeded, there must be an investigation as to whether it poses a significant environmental risk.

Thresholds must be set for each pollutant identified in a  body of groundwater within a state considered to be at a risk.  The thresholds must be included in the river basin district management plan under the water framework directive. A program of measures must be drawn up for each river basin and under the water framework directive and must include indirect discharges of all pollutants, in particular, listed hazardous substances. The water framework directive requires that measures be adopted to prevent and control groundwater pollutants.

Protection from Polluting Discharges

EU directive lays down harmonised rules to protect the aquatic environment against discharge of dangerous substances.  It applies to inland, territorial, and coastal waters. There are two lists of substances.  List 1 must be eliminated. List 2 must be reduced.

Pursuant to the water framework directive, quality, objectives, and emission limits are established.  The emission limits for pollutants must be based on the best available techniques.

All discharges in list 1 require prior authorisation.  It must be for a limited period and lay down standards which may be more stringent than required by EU legislation. List 2 substances are subject to prior authorisation laying down standards.

EU states draw up an inventory of the discharges into waters covered by the directive.  Before the end of 2012, the states must carry out surveillance and notification pursuant to the water framework directive.

Drinking Water

Directives lay down standards for drinking water.  This applies to all water for human consumption apart from natural mineral waters. States must ensure that drinking water does not contain concentrations of microorganisms, pesticides or other substances which constitute a human health risk. It must meet minimum requirements (microbiological and chemical parameters and radioactivity) laid then by the directive.

Steps must be taken to guarantee the healthiness and purity of water for human consumption.  Member states must regularly monitor water quality for human consumption.  The analysis method specified in the directive or equivalent methods must be used.

When the values or limits are not achieved, the states must secure that corrective action is taken as quickly as possible.  States must prohibit distribution of drinking water or restrict its use where necessary where the water constitutes a potential human health hazard.  Consumers must be informed.

States may allow for exemption from the values, provided they don’t endanger human health and there are no other reasonable means of maintaining the distribution of drinking water.  The exemption must be restricted to maximum periods.  It must be justified in detail.

States granting an exemption must inform the population and the Commission.  Every three years, the state must publish a report on the quality of drinking water for its consumers.  States must take necessary action to guarantee that water qualities are met.

Shellfish Waters

There is a directive on shellfish water.  These are waters for the development of shellfish.  It applies to coastal and other waters which must be protected or improved to allow shellfish to develop.

The state must designate the water.  The designation must be updated and revised provided that this does not increase the pollution of coastal waters.  The directive establishes parameters for designated waters.  There are indicative and mandatory values for metrics of analysis, minimum frequency and measures.  The parameters are set for different temperatures, acidity, and presence of different types of substances.

Member states must establish values with which the designated waters must comply.  As a minimum, they must meet the standards in the directive.  Programs must be established to ensure compliance with the limit values. The authorities must take steps to verify conformity with the criteria.  In the event of noncompliance, the competent authority must establish the reason and take appropriate measures.

Urban Wastewater Treatment

Standards are prescribed for urban wastewater treatment.  This relates to the collection, treatment, and discharge of urban wastewater and wastewater from certain industries.

Industrial wastewater entering collection systems and disposal of water waste and sludge from urban wastewater treatment plants must be subject to regulation or specific authorisation.

There is a timetable in which states must provide for collection and treatment systems for urban wastewater in towns and cities corresponding to certain categories. Member states must draw up a list of sensitive and less sensitive areas which receive treated water.

There are specific requirements for discharges in certain industrial sectors of biodegradable industrial wastewater which do not enter urban public wastewater treatment plant before discharge.

States must monitor discharges from treatment plants and receive water.  The authorities must publish a situation report every 2 years.

Protection of Fisheries

There is a directive protecting water for fish breeding.  Member states must designate freshwaters which are considered suitable for fish breeding.  There are minimum qualities in respect of

  • physical, chemical and microbiological parameters
  • limit values for these parameters
  • the minimum frequency of sampling and reference methods.

Standards must be set in accordance with guidelines in the directive and must at least meet the standards set out in the directives.  There are procedures for adopting methods for analysis.  At least every 3 years, the Commission presents a report of the implementation of the directive on the basis of information supplied by the state.

Sewage Sludge in Agriculture

There is an EU directive seeking to regulate the use of sewage sludge in agriculture in order to prevent its

harmful effects.  There are maximum values of concentration of heavy metals.  Spreading of sewage sludge is banned when the concentration exceeds values.

Sewage sludge may be used provided it is regulated.  EU directive lays down limit values for concentrations of heavy metal in soil and in sludge and the maximum annual quantities of heavy metals that may be introduced into the soil.

The introduction of sewage sludge is prohibited if the concentration of the heavy metals exceeds the maximum values.  Member states must take steps to ensure that the limit values are not exceeded as a result of the use of sludge.

Sludge must be treated before being used in agriculture.  States may authorise the use of untreated sludge if it is injected or worked into the soil

Use of sludge is prohibited

  • on grassland or forage crops if it is to be grazed or the forage crops are to be harvested before a certain time is elapsed
  • on fruit and vegetable crops during the growing season except for fruit trees
  • on ground intended for the cultivation of fruit and vegetable crops which normally have direct contact with soil and normally eaten raw for a period of 10 months during the harvest, preceding the harvest, and during the harvest.

Sludge and soil in which it is used must be sampled and analyzed.  Records must be kept.  They must register the

  • quantities of sludge produced and supplied in agriculture
  • Composition and properties of the sludge
  • Type of treatment carried out
  • Name and address of recipients of sludge and places where it is used,

Member states must produce a report to the Commission on the use of sludge in agriculture specifying quantities, criteria followed, and any difficulties encountered.

Hazardous Waste in Water

A 2010 Directive makes requirements for protection of the health of the general public in relation to radioactive waste in water intended for human consumption.

There are parametric values for substances such as radon or tritium.  National authorities must monitor them by carrying out a regular sampling of drinking water at frequent intervals, depending on the volumes involved.

The legislation applies to all water for human consumption.  It includes water, either in its original state or after treatment which is intended for cooking, drinking, preparation of food or other domestic purposes regardless of where it comes from and whether it is supplied through mains, water tanks, bottles or container.

The legislation applies also to water used by businesses to manufacture, process, preserve or market food for human consumption unless national authorities consider that the quality of the water is of sufficiently high standard that it does not affect the safety of the final food product concerned.

The legislation does not apply to the natural mineral waters or to water considered to be medicinal products.  They are separately regulated.

When potential health danger is identified, appropriate advice must be given to the general public of the possible risks and of any extra precautionary measures that may be needed.  Action must be taken quickly to ensure that water is brought back to the necessary standards.

A 2007 Regulation balance the placing in the market, importing and exporting into the community of cat and dog for products containing their fur.  Exceptional derogations may be allowed.  By end of 2008, States have to inform the Commission of the analytical methods used to identify the species of origin of fur.  The commission may adopt measures establishing analytical methods to be used in this regard.

Water pollution from agricultural nitrates

Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources aims to reduce water pollution from nitrates used for agricultural purposes and to prevent any further pollution. It is closely linked to other EU policies which address air and water quality, climate change and agriculture.

EU countries must:

  • designate as vulnerable zones all those draining into waters which are or could be affected by high nitrate levels and eutrophication. The designation is reviewed and possibly revised at least every 4 years to take account of any changes that occur;
  • establish mandatory action programmes for these areas, taking into account available scientific and technical data and overall environmental conditions;
    monitor the effectiveness of the action programmes;
  • test the nitrate concentration in fresh ground and surface water at sampling stations, at least monthly and more frequently during flooding;
  • carry out a comprehensive monitoring programme and submit every 4 years, a comprehensive report on the implementation of the Directive.

The report includes information on nitrate-vulnerable zones, results of water monitoring, and a summary of the relevant aspects of codes of good agricultural practices and action programmes;
draw up a code of good agricultural practice which farmers apply on a voluntary basis. It sets out various good practices, such as when fertiliser use is inappropriate;
provide training and information for farmers, where appropriate.

The European Commission provides a report every 4 years on the basis of the national information it has received.

Part of this text, comprising updates, is derived from Summaries of EU Legislation published by the European  Commission and is published under the licence referred to in the Public Information tab.

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