Executive summary

Executive summary

Key messages

  • This report presents results on the status of EU waters based on the second River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs). It shows the pressures that continue to affect the quality and quantity of water and what progress has been achieved during the first RBMP cycle (2009-2015).

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  • European waters remain under pressure from water pollution, over-abstraction and structural change from a range of human activities. These pressures often act at the same time and affect the good functioning of ecosystems, contribute to biodiversity loss, and threaten the valuable benefits water provides to society and the economy.

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  • Marked efforts have been made by Member States to improve water quality or reduce pressure on hydromorphology. Some of the measures have immediate effect; others will result in improvement in the longer run. Results are usually visible at the level of individual quality elements or pollutants but often do not translate into an overall improved status.

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  • Of the different types of waters recognised by the Water Framework Directive across Europe, groundwaters generally have the best status. Good chemical status has been achieved for 74 % of them, while 89 % achieved good quantitative status.

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  • For surface waters (rivers, lakes, transitional waters and coastal waters) the percentage in good ecological status is around 40 %, while only 38 % of surface waters are in good chemical status.

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  • Compared to the first RBMP, this results in a marginal improvement in the overall quality status because if one of the elements fails, the entire water body quality fails (one-out-all-out rule). The same rule applies to chemical status: if one priority substance poses a risk, the chemical status is identified as bad.

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  • In most Member States, a few priority substances account for much of the poor chemical status. Improvements for individual substances show that Member States are making progress in tackling sources of contamination. The substance most commonly causing failure in good chemical status is mercury. If mercury and other ubiquitous priority substances are not considered, only 3 % of surface water bodies would fail to achieve good chemical status.

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  • Since the previous RBMPs were published, our knowledge of Europe's waters has grown significantly, providing a better understanding of the status, the pressures causing failure to achieve good status, and the measures implemented to generate improvement.

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The main aim of the European Union’s (EU) water policy is to ensure that a sufficient quantity of good quality water is available for people's needs and for the environment. Since the first water directives in the 1970s the EU has worked to create an effective and coherent water policy. The Water Framework Directive (WFD), which came into force in 2000, establishes a framework for the assessment, management, protection and improvement of the quality of water resources across the EU.

Since December 2015, EU Member States have been publishing the second River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) for achieving the environmental objectives of the WFD. They are an update of the first RBMPs that were published in 2009. In summer 2017, 25 Member States had reported into Water Information System for Europe (WISE).  The WISE-WFD database includes data from the first and second RBMPs. In 2018, the European Commission will publish its report on the assessment of the second RBMPs and will start the process of evaluating the Water Framework Directive[1]. To accompany and inform this process, the EEA has produced this report on the 'State of Europe's water' along with presentation of more detailed WFD results in WISE.

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Improvements in monitoring and assessment

The results show that with the second RBMPs the quantity and quality of available evidence on status and pressures has grown significantly. Many Member States and River Basin Districts have invested in better or new ecological and chemical monitoring programs with more monitoring sites, more quality elements and more chemicals. Surface waters and groundwater have been monitored at over 130 000 monitoring sites over the past six years. Many more assessment methods for different quality elements have also been developed and intercalibrated[2]. This has resulted in a marked reduction of water bodies with unknown status and a clearly improved confidence in status assessment in the second RBMPs, as well as a better understanding of the status ecological, chemical and quantitative status, the pressures causing failure to achieve good status, and the needed measures.

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Ecological status of surface waters

Ecological status is an assessment of the quality of the structure and functioning of surface water ecosystems, including rivers, lakes, transitional and coastal waters. It shows the influence of both pollution and habitat degradation. Ecological status is based on biological quality elements, and supporting physico-chemical and hydromorphological quality elements.

During the first RBMP cycle (2009-2015), Member States have introduced better or new ecological monitoring programs with more sites and more quality elements. Many new assessment methods for biological quality elements have been developed. Overall, this has reduced the proportion of water bodies in unknown ecological status from 16 % to 4 %, and has improved the proportion of water bodies classified with high or medium confidence from one third in the first RBMPs to more than half in the second RBMPs.  Higher confidence is also ensured through intercalibration of good ecological status. Since 2008, the number of intercalibrated biological assessment methods has generally increased three-fold for rivers, lakes and coastal waters making results much more comparable than for the first RBMP.

In the second RBMPs more than two thirds of all water bodies are classified with at least one biological quality element. For most of the remaining water bodies status assessment is based on supporting physico-chemical and hydromorphological quality element. All in all, these improvements mean that the ecological status classification results are now a better interpretation of the general health of the water environment.

Overall, 40 % of the surface water bodies have good or high ecological status, with lakes and coastal water bodies having better status (ca. 50%) than rivers and transitional waters bodies (ca. 30-35%). The northern countries show a high proportion of water bodies in high or good ecological status. In contrast, the central European river basin districts, as well as some of the southern RBDs show the highest proportion of water bodies not achieving good ecological status or potential. There is improvement in the ecological status of some of the biological quality elements, while the overall ecological status has not improved since the first RBMPs.

For surface water bodies, the main significant pressures are hydromorphological pressures (41 %), atmospheric deposition (40 %) and diffuse source pollution (37 %), followed by point source pollution (18 %) and water abstraction (7 %). The main impacts on surface water bodies are nutrient enrichment, chemical pollution and altered habitats due to morphological changes.

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Chemical status of surface waters

The WFD aims to ensure good chemical status of both surface water and groundwater bodies across Europe. For surface waters, this goal is defined by limits on the concentration of certain pollutants relevant across the EU, known as priority substances. Good chemical status means that the concentrations of all priority substances do not exceed the environmental quality standards (EQS).

Compared to the previous assessment results in first RBMPs there have been marked improvements in the monitoring and classification of chemical status with a clear reduction in water bodies in unknown chemical status.

The percentage of surface water bodies in good chemical status within the EU is 38 %, while 46 % are not achieving good chemical status and 16 % of the water bodies have unknown chemical status.

In many Member States, relatively few substances are responsible for failure to achieve good chemical status. Mercury causes failure in a high number of water bodies. Omitting widespread pollution by ubiquitous priority substances including mercury, the proportion in good chemical status improves to 81 % of all water bodies, and 3 % do not achieve good chemical status and 16 % have unknown chemical status. The main pressures leading to failure of good chemical status are atmospheric deposition and discharges from urban waste water treatment plants.

Since the first RBMPs were published, Member States have made progress in tackling priority substances, significantly reducing the number of water bodies failing standards for substances such as several priority heavy metals (cadmium, lead, and nickel) and pesticides.

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Chemical and quantitative status of groundwater

The WFD requires Member States to designate separate groundwater bodies and ensure that each one achieves “good chemical and quantitative status”. To meet the aim of good chemical status, hazardous substances should be prevented from entry into groundwater and the entry of all other pollutants (e.g. nitrate) should be limited to prevent pollution.

Good quantitative status is to be achieved by ensuring that the available groundwater resource is not reduced by the long-term annual average rate of abstraction. In addition, impacts on surface water linked with groundwater or groundwater dependent terrestrial ecosystems as well as saline intrusions should be avoided.

Knowledge and information on assessing groundwater status have increased over the first RBMP cycle with the proportion with unknown chemical status and quantitative status decreasing to low levels of 1 %, respectively.

In the EU, 74 % and 89 % of the area of groundwater bodies is in good chemical and quantitative status, respectively. Since the first RBMPs were published, there has been small improvement in groundwater chemical and quantitative status.

Agriculture is the main driver causing failure of good chemical status to EU groundwater, causing diffuse pollution by nitrates and pesticides. Other significant sources are discharges not connected to a sewerage system and contaminated sites or abandoned industrial sites. Nitrate is the main pollutant affecting over 18 % of the area of groundwater bodies. In total 160 pollutants caused failure to achieve good chemical status. Most pollutants were reported in few Member States and only 15 pollutants were reported by five or more Member States.

Water abstraction for public water supply, agriculture and industry is the main significant pressure causing failure of good quantitative status.

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Overall status and overall progress since the first RBMPs

According to the WFD, EU Member States should aim to achieve good status in all bodies of surface water and groundwater by 2015 unless there are grounds for exemption. Only in this case may achievement of good status be extended to 2021 or 2027 or less stringent objectives be set. Achieving good status involves meeting certain standards for the ecology, chemistry, and quantity of waters. In general, good status means that water shows only a slight change from what would normally be expected under undisturbed conditions (i.e. with a low human impact).

Compared to the first RBMPs, there are for all four measures of status[3] a higher proportion of water bodies in good status in the second RBMPs. However, there are also for surface waters a higher proportion of water bodies in less than good status. Both the changes in proportion of good and less than good status are due to improved knowledge of the water environment (i.e. fewer water bodies have unknown status).

Ecological status has improved for many biological quality elements from the first to the second RBMPs. For chemical status, a very low proportion of surface water bodies (3 %) is reported to fail to achieve good status, if ubiquitous substances, especially mercury, is discounted, and only few priority substances are causing poor chemical status (mainly heavy metals like cadmium, lead and nickel). Improvement in status for several priority substances shows that Member States are making progress in tackling sources of contamination.

There are several possible explanations of the limited improvements in overall status from the first to the second RBMPs.  

  • First, additional biological and chemical monitoring was put in place after 2009 and the classification methods were improved and in some cases the standards were tightened.
  • Second, for some water bodies some quality elements have improved in status, but there has been no improvement in the overall status. 
  • Third, the second RBMPs generally show status classification up to 2012/13 and at that time, many measures were only in the process of being implemented and there may be a lag time before the pressures are reduced and there are improvements in status.
  • Finally, some pressures may have been unknown in 2009; and the measures implemented may not have been sufficient and as effective as expected at reducing all the pressures.  

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Pressures causing failure to achieve good status

The results from the second RBMPs show that European waters remain under multiple pressures from water pollution, over-abstraction and structural change from different human activities. These pressures affect the good functioning of water-related ecosystems, contribute to biodiversity loss, and threaten the long-term delivery of ecosystem services and benefits to society and the economy. To ensure sustainable management of water resources, better policy implementation will be needed to improve the coherence between economic, societal and environmental goals. 

There are ample possibilities for improving water management to achieve the objectives of the WFD, through stringent and well‑integrated implementation of existing legislation and introducing supplementary measures that reduce the pressures causing failure to achieve good status. In the following paragraphs, the challenges in water management and the measures needed to progress towards good status are summarized.

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Pollution and water quality

A range of pollutants in many of Europe's waters threaten aquatic ecosystems and may raise concerns for public health. Reducing pollution to meet the objectives of the WFD requires that several other directives and regulations are implemented.

Over the past few decades, clear progress has been made in reducing emissions from point sources. Implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD), together with national legislation, has led to improvements in waste water treatment across much of the European continent. These positive trends reflect increased connections to sewers, improvements in waste water treatment and reducing some substances at the source.

Agricultural production is a major source of diffuse pollution, mostly associated with excessive emissions of nutrients and chemicals such as pesticides. Further drivers include rural dwellings, run-off from urban areas, and forestry. EU action on curbing diffuse nutrient pollution has a long history. A large number of measures are currently used by Member States, including farm-level nutrient planning, fertiliser standards, appropriate tillage, nitrogen-fixing and catch crops, buffer strips, and crop rotation. During the last decades, mineral fertilizer uses and nutrient surpluses of agricultural origin have progressively decreased in the EU and the average nitrate concentration declined by 20 % in European rivers between 1992 and 2012, while groundwater nitrate concentrations in 2011 had almost returned to the 1992 level.

Contamination caused by hazardous substances is a major environmental concern in European waters and consequently is addressed by a number of EU legislative measures and policies. Reducing hazardous substances in water requires strong implementation of the current legislation, but also the adoption of more sustainable production and use of chemicals, both in Europe and beyond.

Improved efforts to retain these chemicals in waste water treatment plants with better waste water treatment should go hand in hand with clear efforts to reduce them at source, by raising consumer awareness and adjusting consumption as well as longer term initiatives, such as those towards a non-toxic environment and a circular economy.

Although considerable success has been achieved in reducing the discharge of pollutants into Europe's waters in recent decades, challenges remain for urban and industrial waste water and pollution from agricultural sources. The implementation of existing EU water emission legislation, including the UWWT, Nitrates and EQS directives in all Member States, will improve the quality of water. Waste water treatment must continue to play a critical role in the protection of Europe's surface waters, and investment will be required to upgrade waste water treatment and to maintain infrastructure in many European countries. In some regions, diffuse pollution from agriculture in particular remains a major cause of the poor water quality and measures to tackle agricultural pollutants may be required.

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Hydromorphological pressures

For decades, humans have altered European surface waters (straightening and channelization, disconnection of flood plains, land reclamation, dams, weirs, bank reinforcements, etc.) to facilitate agriculture, produce energy and protect against flooding. These activities have resulted in damage to the morphology and hydrology of the water bodies.

In the second RBMPs, hydromorphological pressures are the most commonly occurring pressures on surface water bodies affecting 41 % of all surface water bodies.  In addition, 17 % of European water bodies have been designated as heavily modified (13 %) or artificial water bodies (4 %).

The WFD requires action in those cases where the hydromorphological pressures affect the ecological status, interfering with the ability to achieve the WFD objectives. If the morphology is degraded or the water flow is markedly changed, a water body with good water quality will not achieve its full potential as aquatic ecosystems.

The restoration of hydromorphological conditions includes:

  • measures related to river continuity with removal of obstacles and the installation of fish passes;
  • measures focused on restoration of aquatic habitats, such as improving physical habitats;
    sediment management that ensures sediment transport along the length of the river;
  • reconnecting backwaters and wetlands to restore lateral connectivity between the main river channel, the riparian area and the wider floodplain;
  • natural water retention measures that restore natural water storage, for example by inundating flood plains and constructing retention basins;
  • restoring the natural water flow regime such as setting minimum flow and ecological flow requirements [4]; and
    developing master plans or conservation plans for restoring the population of threatened fish species.

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Implementation of measures

To meet the objective of good status, the WFD requires an assessment of all the pressures in a river basin, and the development of a Programme of Measures (PoMs) to tackle them.  The first RBMPs contained a large number of diverse measures. By now, many of the several thousand individual measures in the first RBMPs will have been completed. However, some measures have been delayed or even not started mainly due to funding constraints, while other measures have been difficult to implement.

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Integrated water management

Sustainable and integrated water management plays a substantial role in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the EU 7th Environment Action Programme (7th EAP), and the achievement of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy. Three areas are offering substantial opportunities to improve implementation and support to the achievement of WFD objectives and they are highlighted below.

Protection of Europe's aquatic ecosystems and their services

Concern has grown over the past decades about the rate at which biodiversity is declining and its consequences for the functioning of ecosystems and the services they provide. Many opportunities exist for improving implementation and maximizing synergies between environmental policies relevant for the protection of the water environment. In particular, EU policies on water and the marine environment, nature and biodiversity are closely linked, and together they form the backbone of environmental protection of Europe's ecosystems and their services.

The use of management concepts such as the ecosystem services approach and ecosystem based management can offer ways to improve coordination by setting a more common language and framework to evaluate trade-offs between the multiple benefits that healthy water bodies offer.

Restoring degraded water ecosystems

Nowadays, water management increasingly includes ecological concerns, working with natural processes. This is in line with the objective of the 7th EAP 'to protect, conserve and enhance the Union's natural capital'. It is also consistent with Target 2 of the EU's Biodiversity Strategy that aims to ensure maintenance of ecosystems and their services by establishing green infrastructure and restoring at least 15 % of degraded ecosystems by 2020.

Restoring aquatic ecosystems such as 'making room for the river', river restoration or floodplain rehabilitation, 'coastal zone restoration projects' and integrated coastal zone management has multiple benefits for the water ecosystems. Synergies between policies can be important in restoring aquatic ecosystems.

Integration of water aspects into sector policies

From the assessment of status, and in particular from the assessment of pressures and impacts, it is evident that the driving forces behind achievement or non-achievement of good status are activities in sectoral areas like agriculture, energy or transport. This integration throughout the river basin is enhanced, for example, by better cooperation between competent authorities, better involvement of stakeholders and early participation of the public.

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[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2017-5128184_en
[2] EC 2008: Water Note 7: Intercalibration: A common scale for Europe's waters http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/participation/pdf/waternotes/water_note7_intercalibration.pdf
[3] Surface water ecological and chemical status; and groundwater chemical and quantitative status.
[4] CIS guidance no. 31: Ecological flows in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/water-framework/facts_figures/guidance_docs_en.htm

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