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Protecting and restoring Europe’s waters: the future of the Water Framework Directive

February 1, 2019

Reflections on water. Image: M.G.N. – Marcel | Flickr Creative Commons

A new survey of European water experts suggests that whilst the Water Framework Directive – the keystone of European Union water policy – provides a strong basis for the conservation and restoration of aquatic environments, there are three key areas for improving its future implementation. These include: monitoring and assessment, management measures, and policy integration.

The Water Framework Directive (or ‘WFD’) obliges European member states to monitor, protect and restore their aquatic ecosystems. Adopted in 2000, the key aim of the WFD is to guide all European surface and groundwaters to ‘good ecological status’ (originally by 2015, but with extensions up to 2027). Ecological status is calculated using assessments of biological (e.g. plant and animal communities), physico-chemical (e.g. water temperature and nutrient levels) and hydromorphological (e.g. water flows and connectivity) elements of individual water bodies.

Despite a coordinated Europe-wide effort in monitoring, conserving and restoring aquatic ecosystems since the WFD was adopted, a 2018 European Environment Agency report found that around 60% of European rivers and lakes still failed to reach ‘good’ ecological status. Clearly, the WFD’s goals are laudable, but challenging to achieve in practice.

Is the WFD fit for purpose?

The WFD is currently in the middle of the second six-year cycle of River Basin Management, and a formal evaluation review of its effectiveness is due in 2019. In this context, a large group of freshwater scientists (many supported by the EU FP7 MARS Project) have published an analysis of the future development needs of the WFD.

Writing in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the researchers – led by Laurence Carvalho at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology  – evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of current WFD implementation, identify where innovation offers new opportunities for monitoring and management, and address potential interactions between the WFD and other policy frameworks. In so doing, they ask, “Is the WFD fit-for purpose after 18 years and what improvements should be made in future implementation or revision?”

To address this question, the research team canvassed 95 European water experts – including researchers, practitioners and policy makers – using a questionnaire survey following ‘The Future of Water Management in Europe’ e-conference held in September 2017. The questionnaire – based on themes from the conference, and circulated to participants – solicited responses on the effectiveness of monitoring and assessment, management measures, and policy integration in the WFD. The results thus reflect the ongoing experiences of expert practitioners who closely engage with WFD implementation, and provide a valuable insight into the policy’s strengths and weaknesses.

Co-author Dr. Anne Lyche Solheim, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), gives an overview of the results, “The most important areas of improvement in WFD implementation are to enhance the confidence in assessment of current status through more and smarter monitoring, including citizen science. High confidence in status assessments, together with correct linking to relevant pressures, are fundamental to derive the appropriate combination and amount of mitigation and restoration measures, and to convince other sectors that action is indeed needed.

“Furthermore, better dissemination of knowledge is needed about the interactions of multiple pressures, particularly that synergistic interactions, such as those found for combination of climate change and nutrient pollution, may require increasing mitigation efforts such as putting additional measures in place to reduce nutrients. Better communication to other sectors and to the public is also needed on the benefits of management measures, including nature-based solutions, for different sectors and for water users.

“To prevent the development of negative opinions that costly measures seem to have no effects for many years, water managers also need to highlight that the time needed for recovery can be long, sometimes several decades. Finally, better integration is needed between the WFD and other EU and national policies related to agriculture, energy production and floods.”


MARS scientists assessing multiple stressors in Lake Beyeshir, Turkey. Image: METU Limnology Laboratory

Monitoring and assessment systems

The WFD requirement for comprehensive aquatic monitoring has catalysed significant advances in methods of ecological status assessment, particularly in terms of ‘intercalibrated’ methods which allow cross-comparison of status-class boundaries. The resulting detailed picture of the health and status of Europe’s rivers, lakes, groundwaters, coastal and transitional waters was seen by survey respondents as a key success of the WFD.

However, a weakness of current assessment methods was identified in their failing to identify links between pressures and their impacts on the ecosystem. This linkage is crucial in supporting effective environmental management, particularly under the DPSIR (Driver, Pressure, Impact, State, Response) framework adopted by the WFD.

Another identified weakness is the ‘overly strict’ criteria to define management success. The ‘one-out-all-out-principle’ used in assessment means that the lowest score of the  biological, physico-chemical and hyrdomorphological elements measured in a water body determines its overall ecological status. In practice, this can mean that where different biological elements are sensitive to the same stressors, then the uncertainty associated with each individual assessment can be compounded. Respondents suggested that this uncertainty could be mitigated by reporting progress on individual quality elements, or by providing pressure-specific (e.g. eutrophication, morphological pressures) ecological status assessments.

Opportunities were identified in innovative monitoring schemes, including satellite data for large-scale and real-time assessment of variables such as water-colour, cyanobacteria blooms and plant cover. There are several active projects in this area stemming from the ESA’s Copernicus programme. In addition, citizen science programme such as CEH’s ‘Bloomin Algae’ smartphone app were identified as providing greater coverage for water assessment, whilst also offering new forms of public engagement. Finally, technological advances in meta-barcoding, environmental DNA (eDNA), automated sensor technologies and drones all offer the potential to assess aquatic ecosystems in increasingly precise ways.

However, adopting any new monitoring approaches requires compatibility with existing national and continental methods and a scrutiny of cost-effectiveness, the study’s authors suggest. More broadly, it is noted that expert ecological knowledge in practitioners is needed to underpin any assessment schemes and apply them in effective management schemes.


Multiple stressors along the Emscher River in Nordsternpark, a former mining site in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Image: M. Knuth | Flickr Creative Commons

Improving water management measures

River Basin Management Planning in the WFD outlines a Program of Measures to encourage an improvement in ecological status across entire catchments, often through partnerships with other sectors such as agriculture and flood protection. Such measures are either ‘basic’ (i.e. administrative and regulatory tools, such as pollution control) or ‘supplementary’ (i.e. active ecosystem restoration, such as natural flood retention planning). However, the study’s authors state that currently only around 20% of planned basic WFD measures and 10% of supplementary measures have been completed so far for hydromorphological and diffuse pressures. There are similar implementation delays for water abstraction mitigation measures.

Across Europe, there is a long history of successfully tackling point-source nutrient pollution from industrial and urban wastewater. However, diffuse pollution from agriculture is still a common cause of  poor ecological status in water bodies. Accordingly, in the first cycle of the WFD, two-thirds of the RBMP areas reported that basic measures are insufficient to tackle diffuse nutrient pollution from agriculture. In addition, the study’s authors state that there are a number of neglected or underestimated areas for WFD management, including: environmental flows, water abstraction effects, and invasive species. In short, whilst the WFD has helped support significant conservation and restoration efforts across Europe, there remains significant room for improvement and investment.

The study’s authors suggest three key areas that might improve WFD measures in the future. First, they highlight the need to manage for multiple stressors. Most WFD assessment methods are responsive to single stressors (e.g. nutrient loading), but at least 40% of European waters are subject to multiple stressors (e.g. nutrient loading and temperature increases), with potentially complex interactions and impacts. Whilst there is currently limited evidence on the impact of multiple stressors on aquatic ecosystems, there are a number of emerging scientific studies which highlight how stressor combinations can impact specific water bodies in different places (much of which has stemmed from the EU MARS project). The authors thus emphasise that restoration measures should be based on up-to-date understandings of this emerging literature, in order to account for the complexity of real-world environments.

Second, Carvalho and colleagues highlight the need for improved diagnoses of the causes of deterioration in ecological status. Much like a doctor’s diagnosis, tools are needed to assess the potential causes of deterioration (stressors) from a range of symptoms (biological metrics) of a water body, in order to ‘prescribe’ appropriate management measures. Here, the potential of combining Biological Quality Element assessments with other survey data, and to use new diagnostic tools (such as the MARS cookbook) and targeted monitoring were highlighted by survey respondents.

Third, the authors suggest that the incorporation of an ecosystem service framework can strengthen water management. This is not a new idea, by any means, and ecosystem services are already adopted in RBMPs in some EU countries. An emerging opportunity in this area, however, is in the potential to monitor and assess changes in ecosystem service provision in response to water management measures. In short, if it can be quantitatively shown that healthy and biodiverse aquatic ecosystems provide more ecosystem services to humans, then the argument for their protection and restoration is likely to be significantly strengthened.


A tractor sprays an apple orchard. Image: Barbara Eckstein | Flickr Creative Commons

Integration across policy sectors

Water is a key part of our daily lives, and as a result is a key aspect of numerous different national, EU and global policies across a wide range of sectors. At the river basin scale, the implementation of the WFD involves significant efforts to engage other administrative sectors, stakeholders and the public in planning and management. As a result, managing water necessitates collaboration: a task which is an ongoing challenge for WFD implementation, the study’s authors suggest.

The survey results outline a perception that water policy needs to be better integrated with other policy areas, such as agriculture, flooding, climate and energy, in order to be successful. This is not a new topic of concern, and was highlighted in the 2018 EEA assessment of European aquatic ecosystems. Agriculture is highlighted as the most important sector to make ‘water friendly’, which is unsurprising given the environmental issues such as soil erosion, water abstraction, nutrient and pesticide pollution and riparian alterations it causes across Europe. The authors outline a key tension between the aims of the Common Agricultural Policy – primarily food production – and WFD objectives, which has created a barrier to collaborative developments, they argue.

One approach to addressing this tension is ‘sustainable intensification’, where best practices in land management focus on achieving higher yields with reduced resource (water, fertiliser, pesticides) use, such as in the Baltic Deal Project. However, this balancing act between agricultural yield and environmental impact is not easy to undertake, and as the study’s authors suggest requires the production of, “more formal guidance on the difficult boundaries between regulating polluting acts, requiring the polluter to pay and paying not to pollute. This is linked to questions over who pays for the environment and the resource costs of water services, but extends far beyond the WFD to other aspects of land use and land management.”

Symbolique 2006

The WFD is the keystone of European water policy. Image: Symbolique 2006

Summing up and looking forward

The authors conclude by stating that whilst this expert analysis of the gaps, challenges and opportunities in the WFD is vital, it is important not to lose sight of the successful policy framework and momentum the WFD has created since 2000. They highlight that its focus on ecological status is better accepted in contemporary policy, and aligns the WFD with the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020, and the global goals of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Similarly, the protection of water quality and aquatic ecosystems are key parts of the UN Sustainable Development Goals set in 2015 (Goal 6 and Goal 14).

In short, the key to improving the effectiveness of the WFD towards its 2027 target is not one of policy design, but of implementation, the authors suggest. Progress with management measures, and resulting improvements to ecological status, in European waters have been slower than initially anticipated. However, by addressing the areas of improvement highlighted in this study through a long-term integrated water management perspective which accounts for a dynamic world, Carvalho and colleagues conclude on an optimistic note that “real progress can be made” in the future.

Carvalho L. et al (2019), Protecting and restoring Europe’s waters: An analysis of the future development needs of the Water Framework Directive, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 658, pp 1228-1238

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