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The Water Framework Directive (WFD)

Directive 2000/60/EC establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy (the ‘WFD’) is a comprehensive legal act, which reflects a modern approach to environmental protection.[1] [2] Unlike previous acts in this area, the WFD takes the complexity and functioning of ecosystems as its point of departure. It combines the regulation of emission sources with the setting of ambitious environmental quality standards (EQS). The WFD is clearly one of the EU environmental acts that has had—or will have if implemented correctly—the most far-reaching implications for environmental protection and natural resource management in the Member States. It repeals a number of older pieces of EU law, including Directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances.5

The WFD, which is part of the EU’s environmental policy and based on an article corresponding to the current Article 192(1) TFEU, establishes a framework for the protection of inland surface waters,[3] transitional waters,[4] coastal waters,[5]

and groundwater. This framework has multiple purposes: to prevent further deterioration and protect and enhance the status of aquatic ecosystems; to promote sustainable water use based on a long-term protection of available water resources; to enhance protection and improvement of the aquatic environment, inter alia, through measures for the progressive reduction, cessation or phasing-out of discharges, emissions and losses of priority (ie a group of hazardous) substances; and to progressively reduce pollution of groundwater and prevent its further pollution. It should also contribute to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts. (Art 1.)

Furthermore, the WFD should help the EU and the Member States meet their respective obligations under a number of international agreements, among them the Helsinki Convention,9 the OSPAR Convention,10 and the Barcelona Convention.11’^

The primary aim of the WFD is that at least good water status should be achieved throughout the Union and maintained where it already exists. The water management system established to achieve this aim is based on assessment of the environmental quality of water bodies and the setting of environmental objectives. Improvement of the water quality, or preservation where it is already good, is to be achieved through programmes of measures that are revised regularly based on data gained from monitoring activities. Consistent with this, the Court of Justice has concluded that most of the provisions of the WFD require the taking of the necessary measures to ensure the attainment of certain objectives, sometimes formulated in general terms, while leaving the Member States some discretion as to the nature of the measures to be taken.13

A defining premise of the WFD is that water management should be organised based on geographic and hydrological conditions rather than according to preexisting administrative structures. Against this backdrop the Member States must identify all individual river basins within their national territory, assign them to individual river basin districts, and ensure that there are appropriate administrative arrangements, including the identification of a competent authority, for the application of the WFD within each river basin district. (Art 3.)

A ‘river basin’ is the area of land from which all surface run-off flows through a sequence of streams, rivers and, possibly, lakes into the sea at a single river mouth, estuary, or delta, whereas a ‘river basin district’, that is, the main unit for management of river basins, is the area of land and sea made up of one or more neighbouring of territorial waters is measured, extending where appropriate up to the outer limit of transitional waters (Art 2).

  • 9 The Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (Helsinki Convention) (Helsinki, 9 April 1992) 1507 UNTS 167.
  • 10 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention) (Paris, 22 September 1992) 2354 UNTS 67.
  • 11 Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea against pollution (Barcelona Convention) (Barcelona, 16 February 1976) 1102 UNTS 27.
  • 12 Dir 2000/60/EC, preambular para 21.
  • 13 CaseC-32/05 Commission v LuxembourgECLI:EU:C:2006:749, para 43.

river basins together with their associated groundwaters and coastal waters, as identified by the Member State concerned.

Where a river basin covers the territory of more than one Member State, it shall be assigned to a so-called international river basin district. Coastal waters shall also be identified and assigned to the nearest or most appropriate river basin district. (Arts 2 and 3.)

At the latest four years after the entry into force of the WFD, each Member State was required, with respect to each river basin district, to analyse its characteristics, to review the impact of human activity on the status of surface waters and on groundwater, and to carry out an economic analysis of water use. This includes characterisation of surface water and groundwater bodies in accordance with the method set out in Annex II.[6] [7] [8] The analyses and reviews had to be reviewed, and if necessary updated, at the latest in 2013 and then every six years thereafter. (Art 5.) Since these analyses provide the basis for the management measures required by the WFD, this means that water management under the WFD operates based on six year-cycles.

Characterisation in many cases did not occur at the required pace. In some Member States ecological and chemical water status remained unknown for more than 50 per cent of the water bodies in 2012.15

The outcomes of the analyses are compared with the environmental objectives which are to be achieved according to Article 4.

  • [1] Dir 2000/60/EC (n 1).
  • [2] Council Directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances [1980] OJ L 20/43.
  • [3] ‘Surface water’ is inland waters, except groundwater; transitional waters; and coastal waters, exceptin respect of chemical status, for which it also includes territorial waters (Art 2).
  • [4] ‘Transitional waters’ are bodies of surface water in the vicinity of river mouths which are partlysaline in character as a result of their proximity to coastal waters but which are substantially influencedby freshwater flows (Art 2).
  • [5] ‘Coastal water’ is surface water on the landward side of a line, every point of which is at a distanceof one nautical mile on the seaward side from the nearest point of the baseline from which the breadth
  • [6] On the issue of what size a body of water must have for there to be an obligation to analyseand classify it, see S Mockel ‘Small Water Bodies and the Incomplete Implementation of the WaterFramework Directive in Germany’ (2013) 10 Journal for European Environmental & Planning Law 262-75.
  • [7] Report from the Commission on the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) River Basin Management Plans (14 November 2012) COM(2012) 670 final, 7.
  • [8] An ‘artificial water body’ is a body of surface water created by human activity whereas by ‘heavilymodified water body’ is understood a body of surface water which as a result of physical alterations byhuman activity is substantially changed in character, as designated by the Member State in accordancewith the provisions of Annex II. For further guidance on these terms, see Common ImplementationStrategy for the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), Guidance document No 4, Identificationand Designation of Heavily Modified and Artificial Water Bodies, Office for Official Publications ofthe European Communities, 2003.
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