One of the biggest pieces of work for the water sector in the next few years is the review of the Water Framework Directive (WFD).
EurEau’s technical experts met recently to discuss priorities for the review. The experts’ focus was on finding a consensus on what works in the current directive and what can be improved in the 2019 revision. Member States are working hard now on finalising their second River Basin Management Plans to submit to the Commission next spring.
The Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) is a European Union directive that commits EU Member States to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies by 2015. It prescribes steps at the river basin level to reach the common goal, rather than adopting the more traditional limit value approach. The Directive’s aim for ‘good status’ for all water bodies will not be achieved, with 47% of EU water bodies covered by the Directive failing to achieve the aim.
Without sufficient water resources, Europeans’ health, their environment, their jobs and their society are all at risk. The new WFD needs to work with existing legislation such as the CAP, work across policy areas and be fully implemented. We must never take water resources for granted.
So what do our experts from across Europe say about the WFD and what would they like to see in a revision? The first positive point is that EurEau’s members – public and private water providers from 28 European countries – are in firm agreement for a strong directive that protects our water resources for now and for future generations, and are clear about the directive’s strengths and weaknesses.
The overall success of the current WFD is that water quality in Europe has improved in the past 15 years, bringing many benefits to the environment and citizens. This is despite the very many challenges we face, such as diffuse pollution and the effects of climate change.
We now have more – and better quality – monitoring of water resources and therefore more information about the state of our waters. Thanks to these factors and the River Basin Management Approach overall, there is much more transparency and increased stakeholder participation.
Also, we know the EU is very serious about this directive’s implementation. The second river basin management plan (RBMP) cycle is under public consultation and the Commission is already evaluating some proposals. Their first evaluation showed that some RBMPs are only proposing measures to comply with the daughter directives (Drinking Water Directive, Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive or Bathing Water Directive) which could be not sufficient enough to reach the objectives. Under the previous cycle, Member States are being taken to court for infringements, which is painful for everyone involved.
Unfortunately there are also difficulties in communicating the progress achieved so far because the WFD does not focus on trends. In some cases, despite working as hard as possible, when working with nature its status improves slowly simply because ecosystems are slow to recover.
That is why the one-out-all-out principle should be reviewed, since it will be difficult to justify and attract investments if progress towards good status cannot be communicated.
We are also doing our best despite other factors outside of our control. For example, as consumers’ behaviours and needs change, new pharmaceuticals and chemicals they buy are found in our watercourses. We have a challenge in understanding the impact of these substances on water bodies and in bringing cost-effective solutions, since the problem of micropollutants is societal and political, not only technological.
Environmental damage should be controlled at the source, with a holistic approach to pollutants promoted so that the life cycle of the products is considered. Micropollutants should not be allowed to enter the water cycle, but since our societies consume certain products we have to think about the most effective measures to control the pollution.
Stronger links between the WFD and other policy areas and directives need to be forged. For example, more integration is needed between the WFD and the Drinking Water Directive.
The agriculture sector needs to be more engaged in the review process as currently there is no feasible link between the WFD and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In addition, the issue of diffuse pollution from agriculture should be better addressed.
Pesticides and herbicides applied to agricultural land can contaminate water resources due to run-off. The nitrogen and phosphorus applied to agricultural land (via synthetic fertilisers, composts, manures, and biosolids) can provide valuable plant nutrients. If not managed correctly, however, excess nitrogen supplied by both synthetic fertilisers (as highly soluble nitrate) and organic sources such as manures and phosphorus can lead to groundwater contamination.
Articles 7.2 and 7.3 of the WFD, which ensure that water is free from contamination and that groundwater bodies identified as drinking water sources should be protected, should be implemented properly. The implementation differs from country to country, since the articles contain only a general obligation for Member States. Horizontal measures for the protection of drinking water abstraction areas have been established in Greece, for instance, while the Netherlands have not foreseen measures. France introduced a ‘Remote Perimeter’ and local rules govern ‘zones subject to environmental constraints’. The UK implemented Drinking Water Protected Areas and Safeguard and Water Protected Zones. We want to see specific requirements for Member States in the new WFD.
Urban planning should also be taken into account in the next WFD. Our cities need to be able to cope with heavy rains and flooding. We see more and more flooding events occurring across Europe and climate change will increase this phenomenon. Cities have increased their impervious surface areas over the years, which amplifies the effect of heavy rains. At the same time, we also see the impact of heavy rains on cities. It is not the only source of pollution, but cities are a contributor to it. Sound environment-oriented urban planning could partly solve issues related to rain water management.
The timing and the deadlines set 15 years ago are too ambitious, since the length of the procedures relating to the environmental impact assessment and public procurement do not match with the WFD’s timing. Limited available budgets in the Member States had a negative impact on timing, too.
When it comes to compliance with the WFD, it might be wise to focus on the trends and which sectors are making the greater efforts; while the water sector is contributing to the WFD, agriculture and other industrial sectors should contribute more.
The one-out-all-out principle should be reviewed, especially because by continuously adding new parameters or strengthening standards, the water sector has the impression to never reach the objectives.
In the revision of the WFD it would be fantastic to see tools established to recover costs and evaluate the environmental costs, since article 9 does not elaborate on this in the current wording.
EurEau supports the cost recovery principle and recognises that the inclusion of environmental and resource costs in the water tariff is a sound objective. However, it is indispensable to better apply the ‘polluter pays’ principle to all users (households, industry and agriculture) at the same time. Otherwise, this approach could lead in some cases to a significant increase in the price of water services.
Therefore we believe that water-pricing policies need to consider social impacts. In countries where they are needed, we recommend measures targeting persons facing affordability problems, through the tariff system or by other means. Even if the decisions on such measures and the identification of beneficiaries remain the responsibility of public authorities, water operators can play an important role in developing appropriate models.
Synergies with other policy areas need to be strengthened since the WFD provides a framework in which chemical authorisation legislation, the CAP and the drinking water directive should be linked: the directive should be reinforced horizontally to be better integrate with other policies.
EurEau would also like to see the Commission establish a database of pollutants that is available for water sector professionals. It believes that one of the biggest challenges the WFD has to address is represented by both micropollutants and diffuse pollution coming from agriculture.
In the revision of the WFD, we hope to see tools established to recover costs and evaluate the environmental costs, since article 9 does not elaborate on this in the current wording. We will support the directive as a cost-effective instrument, since improving water quality and ecosystems is fundamental for the development of a sustainable economy.
Article 7 should be reworded and strengthened to make the obligations on Member States clearer and identify measures, especially on water protection areas.
Since exemptions are used unevenly by Member States, the revision should consider the regime of exemptions and address it accordingly.
Ultimately, water providers want the outcome of the revision to safeguard Europe’s water supply for future generations. EurEau will continue to work with the Commission, Parliament, regulators and Member States on the review.
If you are a stakeholder and would like to discuss this critical review of European environmental law, email Neil Dhot, interim Secretary General at: [email protected]
Published: 14th Dec 2015 in AWE International