The EU Water Framework Directive

Mountain stream in summer
Photo: BML

With the European Water Framework Directive (EU WFD), which entered into force in 2000, water bodies are seen holistically as habitats and their water is not purely seen as consumer good. The Directive standardises the legal framework for the water policy of the European Union and aims at shaping water utilisation in a sustainable and environmentally compatible way.

The protection of waters plays a crucial role in this respect. The objective is a transnational and sustainable management of the resource water and the preservation of the ecological functionality of bodies of water as ecosystems.

In view of the water balance terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands depending on water bodies are also included in the considerations.

Our riverine landscapes have been considerably marked and also changed by human activities over centuries. The fundamental goal of the Water Framework Directive is the “good status” in all European water bodies. For the surface waters this means to reach a “good ecological and good chemical status” and for the groundwater to reach a “good chemical and quantitative status”. Furthermore, it stipulates that the status of the water bodies must not be deteriorated (prohibition of deterioration).

In this way, a good and comparable standard shall be established all over Europe.

Within a given schedule the water bodies must maintain the good status or be brought into a good status by 2015 - with exceptional provisions by 2027.

There are exact provisions for the assessment of this status: for running waters and lakes, the ecological assessment is oriented according to the characterisation of communities in water bodies. In this context, it is also taken into consideration that each water body has characteristic features in its natural status - a mountain torrent, for example, others than a big river in the lowlands. Therefore, the Water Framework Directive stipulates that the water bodies shall be classified into types and that their ecological assessment shall take place on the basis of type-specific animals and plants. The structure of the water bodies, too, is an indicator for how much the respective water body deviates from its natural status. In the same way the chemical status of the water body must comply with exact standards.

A decisive measuring unit for the quantity of groundwater is the height of the groundwater level. It is mostly in direct contact with surface waters, i.e. rivers, brooks, and lakes. If it goes down the upper soil layers will dry up. For the description of the groundwater quality characteristic key parameters, nutrients, as well as partly also other parameters, such as heavy metals and plant protection products are measured.

Surface waters are in a good status, if their communities, their structures, and their chemical ingredients have only been influenced to a minor degree by humans.

Groundwater is in a good status, if the chemical ingredients and the quantity have only been influenced to a minor degree by humans.

Not all water bodies are “natural”. There are water bodies, which have been “considerably modified” by humans and “artificial” water bodies, such as dams or river training facilities. With these water bodies no decisive improvements can be achieved in terms of ecology without considerably restricting human activities or utilisations.

For considerably modified or artificial bodies of water the goal is to reach, instead of the good ecological status, the environmental objective of the good ecological potential.

Working programme

It is laid down in a working programme, including schedule, in various steps how a good status shall be reached by 2027 at the latest.

  • As a first step in the planning process the effects of human activities on the water status have to be represented for defined sections of water (bodies of water). This already took place in the course of a first analysis of the status quo. In the course of this process the risk of missing the given environmental objectives is also assessed.
  • On the basis of the results the monitoring programme has been established. It started in Austria in 2007 (water status monitoring 2007-2009). Subsequently the ecological status is identified for the bodies of water (rivers, lakes groundwater) by means of measurements or by analogy for similar bodies of water (grouping). The requirements for the assessment of the good status, which means the exact definition of the quality objectives, are laid down in this context in various quality objective ordinances.
  • In a next step the results are published in the National Water Management Plan (NGP Nationaler Gewässerbewirtschaftungsplan). In the bodies of water where the risk to miss the good status is confirmed appropriate measures for improvement have to be carried out.
  • In the programme of measures it is defined how and when environmental objectives are to be reached.

The management plans and the objectives reached are controlled and updated within the framework of a 6-years cycle.

Important objectives

With the EU WFD new emission quality and monitoring standards are set.

Protection of all waters

I.e. groundwater, surface waters (rivers and lakes) as well as transitional and coastal waters in the EU areas are looked at from a trans-boundary point of view. The last two ones are not represented in Austria as a landlocked country. In addition, water-dependent terrestrial ecosystems are taken into consideration.

Reaching and preserving the “good” status

For surface waters the status is expressed by a five-level assessment system and shows the quality of structure and functionality of the ecosystem.

The assessment takes place on the basis of specific data from the fields of biology, hydro-morphology and chemistry. Only minor deviations from the reference status typical for the respective type of water body, which means a largely uninfluenced status of a body of water, are permitted. In general, also the principal of “non-deterioration” has to be taken into consideration. Waters (water sections) which are in a “high“ or “good” status must not be deteriorated. Waters (water sections) which are in a status that is worse than “good” must be brought into the “good status”.

As far as groundwater is concerned, the good chemical and quantitative status has to be reached.

Management of water bodies on the basis of river basin districts

Austria has a share in three international river basin districts RBD (Flussgebietseinheiten): Danube, Rhine, and Elbe. On the basis of these river basin districts the management of the waters is carried out in the form of planning on the protection, the improvement and the sustainable use.

For the RBD management plans are established and programmes of measures are worked out.

Combined approach of emission and immission limitation

The release of substances into the environment by a certain source is called emission. Frequently these substances are pollutants.

Immission is the impact of the emitted (pollutant) substances on plants, animals, and humans as well as on buildings after they have been spread in the environment (air, water, and soil) and also chemically transformed.

It is important in this respect that (hazardous) substances are only released to a limited degree into the environment. In this context, the EU WFD speaks of a “combined approach” to reduce emission- and immission-based pollution.

Cost-covering water prices for water supply and disposal

In the context of water utilisation economic analyses are required as well, which take into consideration a cost-coverage principle for water services,

Public participation

In the course of the implementation of the EU WFD the citizens are involved in the planning and decision-making processes.