New Commission report on Member State progress in implementing EU water policy

The European Commission has just published a new report analysing the second River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the first Flood Risk Management Plans under the Flood Directive, which both cover the period between 2015 and 2021. The WFD, which was introduced in 2000, aims to ensure that by 2027 at the latest all 111,000 EU surface water bodies and 13,000 groundwater bodies reach “good status”[1], unless there are good reasons for exemption.

The WFD is a key piece of EU environmental legislation that, along with other EU water law, has been instrumental in improving the status of the large majority of EU water bodies. A substantial effort has been made in recent years by a range of stakeholders across the EU to implement the WFD and supporting laws and to set up appropriate governance structures and processes, such as the River Basin Management Authorities. Not only did these improvements have positive direct benefits for European citizens and industry, for example through better swimming water and sourcing of drinking water, they also facilitated the recovery of threatened ecosystems and their services in many places.

However, more effort is needed to achieve the objective of good water status for all European water bodies set under the WFD. The European Waters Assessment published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last summer shows that 38% of surface waters are in good chemical status and 40% in good ecological status or potential, with limited progress being made in this respect compared to the first WFD management cycle (2009- 2015). The EEA report shows that pollution in EU water bodies is still significant, due to both diffuse sources such as agriculture and transport, as well as point sources such as industries. In addition, over-abstraction and hydro-morphological changes still prevent many EU water bodies from reaching good status.

Impacts from agriculture such as over-abstraction and pollution from manure and agro-chemicals are among the most reported barriers to meeting WFD objectives. Measures are in place to reduce those impacts, but in half of river-basin management plans no prior assessment is made of whether the foreseen agricultural measures (mostly voluntary) will close the gap to good water status. Indeed, the Commission’s report shows, for example, that several Member States are not implementing their own commitments on reducing over-abstraction at sufficient scale and pace to meet WFD objectives. Measures have been put in place as well to reduce the pollution caused by the industry and energy sector, but in many cases progress has been insufficient.

It is somewhat encouraging that most Member States have implemented measures to progress towards the achievement of the WFD objectives. For example, measures have been put in place to address hydromorphological pressures, although systematic approaches based on minimum ecological flows are often still missing. Similarly, several Member States have upgraded their water pricing, but progress is still needed to improve on the cost recovery and polluter pay principles. Finally, little progress has been made with regard to protected areas for drinking water and for nature protected areas.

The WFD allows exemptions for water bodies, where achieving good status is impossible or would require disproportionate costs, and WFD exemptions still cover around half of EU water bodies. The WFD requires that the exemptions based on disproportionate costs are justified by comparing the costs and benefits of the measures that would be needed to reach good status. According to the Commission’s report, the justification for such exemptions has improved.

However, a recent IEEP work financed by DG Environment in the context of the BLUE 2 project on the assessment of costs and benefits of EU water policy found that information on benefits is very rarely collected and discussed against costs. For BLUE 2, IEEP developed a bottom-up, multi-criteria methodology to assess costs and benefits of water policy, which was then applied in eight River Basin Districts (RBDs) across Europe by researchers from Ramboll, Ecorys, Intecsa-Inarsa and WEARE. This work showed that information availability is still an issue for the analysed RBDs, and presumably for many other EU RBDs.

Besides the justification of exemptions, the understanding of the costs and benefits of water measures is essential to ensuring that the implementation gap is closed, and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of water policy. A bottom-up, multi-criteria approach like the one developed by IEEP will be useful to collect and systematise such information.

Summing up, Member States need to intensify their efforts to address the main pressures on EU waters, and to put in place more innovative and ambitious restoration measures, improve data availability and quality, apply the polluter pays and the recovery principles and increase participation of all relevant stakeholders to facilitate this process. All this will be needed to reduce reliance on exemptions and improve the status of EU water bodies.

[1] “Good status” is defined as good ecological and chemical status for surface waters and good quantitative and chemical status for groundwaters. Heavily modified or artificial water bodies are required to achieve “good ecological potential”.