The Water Framework Directive (WFD) establishes a water management program based on river basins as the natural geographical and hydrological units for such management.  It also sets specific deadlines for Member States to protect aquatic ecosystems. The directive addresses inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters, and groundwater.  The program requires public participation in planning.

The WFD builds on, and requires compliance with, then-existing and subsequently enacted directives including those on Bathing Water (2006/7),

Drinking Water (80/778, as amended by 98/83), Urban Wastewater Treatment (91/271), Nitrates (91/676), Integrated Pollution Prevention & Control (96/61, codified as Directive 2008/1/EC), and Sewage Sludge (86/278).  All these directives are intended to protect water resources, either directly or indirectly.

Under the WFD, it is the status of the water bodies, rather than just their quality, that is assessed.  River Basin Districts within each Member State are identified and then each water body is classified for ecological status — applying biological quality elements, hydromorphological elements and physico-chemical elements — and for chemical status — applied to over 30 priority substances.  Based on the assessments, most water bodies are classified as High, Good, Moderate, Poor or Bad; groundwater is classified as either Good or Poor.  The category “High” represents conditions associated with no or very low human pressure and the other categories represent deviations from this “reference condition.”

Under Article 4(1), the WFD sets the goal of achieving a “good status” for all of Europe’s surface waters and groundwater by 2015. The deadline of 2015 can be extended for certain water bodies if achieving the standard of “good status” by 2015 would be “disproportionately expensive.”

In assessing the condition of water bodies, the Member States consider not the entire river, lake, or transitional or coastal water but sections of it.  Thus, different sections of a water body can, and often do, have different classifications.

The WFD requires a ‘one out-all out’ approach for classification where the status of a site is determined by the lowest value of the quality elements used.  If any one of the tests results in poor status, then the overall

classification of the body will be poor.  For example, if one monitoring site in a waterbody fails to meet the required standard for morphology due to dredging or any other parameter in the classification system, then the entire waterbody is designated as not achieving good status.  “This approach is based on the precautionary principle in that the most sensitive element to what may potentially be a wide range of pressures impacting on water quality is used to define the final status.”  Water Quality in Ireland, 2007-2009, Appendix 3.1

Some water bodies have been heavily modified over decades, or longer, usually to support economic activities, such transport of goods, flood control, and dams, as seen in the Rhine River Basin.  Under Article 4(3) of the Directive, and tests established by WFD, the Member State can classify a water body as heavily modified or artificial and such bodies are subject to less demanding standards.  They have to meet a “good ecological potential” rather than “good ecological status,” however, they still need to achieve the same low level of chemical contamination as other water bodies.  A number of states classified over 40% of their water bodies as modified or artificial, and the Netherlands had 90%, while Ireland had only 2% heavily modified or artificial.

While the assessment of water bodies in the Member States builds on existing programs in each Member for monitoring chemical and biological conditions, the Directive added new requirements for assessing the ecosystems and human impacts on hydromorphology, the physical shape of river systems (e.g., impacts from dams and water extraction).  Monitoring is required for long-term surveillance, for operations, and for investigations (e.g., when accidents occur). Each Member State chooses its own methods of monitoring but a project that developed intercalibration between the States ensures that the different national systems achieve comparable results.

For surface waters the Directive limits the concentration of specific pollutants of EU relevance, known as priority substances. To date, thirty-three priority substances have been identified. A new Directive, published in December 2008, establishes limits, known as Environmental Quality Standards (EQS), for these thirty-three substances and for an additional eight substances regulated under previous legislation.  Within the group of thirty-three priority substances, twenty have been identified as “priority hazardous substances” because they are persistent in the environment, bioaccumulate, and are especially toxic.  These substances are to be phased out over twenty years.

The WFD is the first piece of EU water legislation to explicitly integrate economics into its measures through two key economic principles. The WFD requires Member States to use economic analysis in the management of their water resources and to assess both the cost-effectiveness and overall costs of alternatives when making key decisions.  The directive also calls for water users, including industries, farmers and households, to pay for the full costs of the water services they receive — the full costs include costs for operations, maintenance, infrastructure investment, and environmental damages to ecosystems. With increasing incidences of water scarcity across the EU, likely to increase even more with climate change impacts, pricing water usage is an important policy within the EU community.  While these economic principles have been incorporated into the WFD, the directive’s preamble makes it clear that “water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such”.

The WFD requires that the public be informed about and involved in the preparation of the river basin management plans.  These public participation components derive from the Aarhus Convention much of which has been incorporated into EU law through several directives.  That is fortunate since Ireland has not ratified the Convention.

The expected impacts on water resources from global climate change include hotter, drier summers in southern EU, with water scarcity affecting agriculture, tourism, and less water for cooling coal and nuclear power plants, and increased risk of eutrophication.  In contrast, northern EU is expected to experience increased rains and flooding.   Both parts of the EU will face more and more intense extreme weather events.   In light of these impacts, the WFD will become more critical in the future as the six-year review of river basin plans can be used to protect water resources through adaptation measures, such as improved land-use planning, improved agricultural practices and policies, flood controls, and repairs to water infrastructure to reduce leaks.

Some further ideas to explore on Water Framework Directive:

Identify the River Basin District (RBD) closest to you, and the surface water body within that RBD that is nearest to you.

Evaluate the sampling data available in the EPA Water Quality Report, including  in the Appendices, to determine the status of that surface water body.

Using the EPA Water Quality Report, and any other source available to you, identify any source of pollution that is impacting the surface water body nearest to you.

Determine what, if any, action is being taken by the EPA or Local Authority to identify and to stop any source of pollution impacting the surface water body nearest to you.  


Water Framework Directive, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy.

European Commission, “Introduction to the New EU Water Framework Directive”

See “Ireland’s Water Quality: Groundwater OK, Surface Waters 50% Good, 50% Not So Good,” in the Reports section of irish environment (May 2011).

Irish Environmental Protection Agency, WATER QUALITY IN IRELAND 2007-2009, Edited by Martin McGarrigle, John Lucey and Micheál O’Cinnéide (2011) [see especially Appendix 3.1 which is not available on EPA’s website],30640,en.html

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2 comments so far, add your own below

  • 13 Jun 2012 at 1:19 am picamilon

    You have mentioned very interesting points! ps decent site.

    • 6 Jul 2012 at 10:17 pm Javier

      The USGS has done their part in the sustainable use of the water reeourcss. It is very important that water usage and supply be always monitored and managed. While conservation techniques , water recycling and reusing have been popularly used there is still enough reasons to look for other more effective means of obtaining potable water. I hope that the government will spend more in looking for a more efficient and more affordable technology in extracting potable water form the sea.

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