Introduction to the WFD





The Three Waves of European Water Policy



Water was one of the first issues addressed by the EU environmental policy in the mid-1970s and today comprises more than two dozen water-related directives and decisions. The first wave of legislation took place from 1975-1980, which saw the creation of several directives and decisions that lay down environmental quality standards (EQS) for specific types of water, such as the Surface Water (75/440/EEC), Fish Water (78/659/EEC), Shellfish Water (79/923/EC), Bathing Water (76/16/EEC), and Drinking Water Directives (80/778/EEC), or introduced emission limit values (ELV) for specific water uses, like the Dangerous Substances Directive (76/464/EEC) or the Groundwater Directive (80/86/EEC). These directives were mainly based on the first Environmental Action Programme (1973), which called for both approaches to be used. In practice, however, the dual approach did not only lead to highly fragmented water legislation, but also to huge implementation problems. It proved less successful than expected in its environmental outcome. The second wave of water legislation from 1980 to 1991 was less comprehensive. Apart from the introduction of two new instruments, the Nitrates (91/676/EEC) and Urban Waste Water (91/271/EEC) Directives, several ‘daughter directives’ implementing the Dangerous Substances Directive were adopted. Due to this patchwork of legislation from the 1970s onwards, both Council and Parliament demanded new and more coordinated water legislation. Hence, a major revision of the EU water policy was prepared, which – after a decade of political struggle (the third wave) - finally resulted in the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC. Not only will this directive repeal six earlier water directives and one regulation and effect a number of other pieces of water legislation, but it will also provide the basis for subsequent legislative initiatives. The Drinking Water and Bathing Water Directives remain as free-standing directives, yet Member States are required to coordinate the protection of these waters under the scope of the WFD. Some of the Directives stemming from the second wave will not be repealed by the WFD, but have instead been revised.




Aims of the WFD



The aim to achieve “good ecological status” for all European waters (including transitional and coastal waters) represents the core environmental objective of the WFD, which will be realized through two main trajectories: (1) the protection and improvement of the aquatic environment, and (2) the contribution to sustainable, balanced and equitable water use. In order to achieve the environmental objectives, specific methodologies and instruments have been introduced (and are still being developed in ongoing research projects) and tied to legally binding deadlines following an ambitious time schedule:






Time Schedule


The Directive sets a clear series of deadlines for each requirement. However, there are exemptions to the environmental objectives under certain circumstances that allow for an extension of the deadline beyond 2015. Moreover, the actual implementation performance of the individual member states varies considerably, and in fact the majority of the EU countries have not met the past three deadlines (see Implementation Performance). The core steps of the remaining time schedule end in 2015 with the achievement of “good ecological status” for all EU waters. However, as the WFD follows an adaptive management process, a second and third management cycle is to be completed after six and twelve years, respectively.








Environmental Objectives and Intercalibration


The environmental objectives are defined in Article 4 - the core article - of the Water Framework Directive (WFD). The aim is long-term sustainable water management based on a high level of protection of the aquatic environment. Article 4.1 defines the WFD general objective to be achieved in all surface and groundwater bodies and introduces the principle of preventing any further deterioration of the status. However, a number of exemptions exist that e.g. allow for less stringent objectives or the extension of deadlines.

Since the intercalibration exercise is recognized as a key element in making the general environmental objective operational in a harmonised way throughout the EU, its (a) legal basis, (b) objective, (c) steps for site registry, and (d) expected outcome is briefly described in the following praragraphs.



a) Assessment of water status in the WFD


The WFD classification scheme for water quality includes five status categories: high, good, moderate, poor and bad. The general objective of the WFD is to achieve ‘good status’ for all surface waters by 2015. ‘Good status’ means both ‘good ecological status’ and ‘good chemical status’.

‘High status’ is defined as the biological, chemical and morphological conditions associated with no or very low human pressure. This is also called the ‘reference condition’ as it is the best status achievable - the benchmark. These reference conditions are type-specific, which means they are different for different types of rivers, lakes or coastal waters so as to take into account the broad diversity of ecological regions in Europe.

Assessment of quality is based on the extent of deviation from these reference conditions, following the definitions in the Directive. ‘Good status’ means ‘slight’ deviation, ‘moderate status’ means ‘moderate’ deviation, and so on (for mored details see Annex V to the WFD).



b) The objective of the intercalibration exercise


The intercalibration exercise is referred to in the Directive (Annex V section 1.4.1). Its objective is to harmonise the understanding of ‘good ecological status’ in all Member States, and to ensure that this common understanding is consistent with the definitions of the Directive.

Intercalibration is a complex task that takes into account current scientific knowledge about the structure and functioning of aquatic ecosystems, and how human activities influence them. However, the process of defining ‘good ecological status’ does not take into account socio-economic factors. These are covered by the exemptions to the general objectives.


c) The intercalibration register of sites

The first step in the intercalibration exercise included the selection of sites representing ecological status at the boundaries between the “high” and “good” and between the “good” and “moderate” classifications. Member States made the selection back in 2003 and 2004 on the basis of their understanding of good ecological status.

The selection of sites was carried out based on biological quality elements which are included in the definition of ecological status (for example “composition and abundance of aquatic flora” or “composition, abundance and age structure of fish fauna”, see WFD Annex V Section 1.1 for the complete list). Although the WFD defines which biological elements must be taken into account when assessing ecological status, it leaves the Member States ample room to define the details of their own assessment system, thus paying tribute to the fact that information on biological quality data varies between countries - "the purpose of intercalibration is not to harmonise assessment systems, but only their results" (WISE website).



d) Outcome of the intercalibration exercise


To define “good ecological status”, the intercalibration exercise will define the upper and lower boundaries, i.e. the “high-good” and the “good-moderate” boundaries. The outcome of the intercalibration exercise will establish the boundaries of good ecological status applicable to all national classification systems. It is expected that some Member States will need to adapt the boundaries of their national systems to the resulting EU-wide level.



Current Issues and Critique

Both the environmental objectives - especially the rules on exemptions - and the intercalibration exercise are subjects to widespread critique from the scientific communtiy as well as NGOs. Closely linked with the exemptions are the reference water quality parameters and monitoring measures, which are criticized as being insufficient and above that hard to enforce.

Especially the rules on exemptions are seen as jurisdictional loopholes effectively allowing governments to water down the environmental objectives.


With regard to the environmental assessment carried out prior to classification, the 'results-orientated' approach is not without concern, as the outcomes largely depend on the way in which the assessment has actually been carried out. Furthermore, this approach prevents effective control and quality assurance as the process is being left to individual goverments, thus being beyond the control of the EU Comission.