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1. Legislation

Clean water and stable water resources are essential to European citizens and the economy. Fresh and salt water ecosystems, plant and animal life, need to be protected. Effects brought on by the changing climate need to be managed. The water policy of the European Union is a horizontal policy area, touching a wide range of activities. Moreover, as water issues easily cross national boundaries, legislation on the EU level is necessary.

The EU’s water legislation covers areas as diverse as drinking water safety, bathing water quality, drought and flood management, chemical substances in water, groundwater protection, urban waste water and the marine environment.

Over the years, the EU’s main challenge has been to tackle the pollution and exploitation of freshwater in agriculture, industry and other human activities.

European water legislation dates back to the mid-70s. The first directive of 1975 set standards for lakes and rivers used for abstracting drinking water. In 1980 binding quality targets were set for potable water.

The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and the Nitrates Directive were adopted in 1991. In the mid-90s, a stricter new directive for drinking water was created, and the Directive for Integrated Pollution and Prevention Control addressed pollution from large industrial installations.

The Union’s Water Framework Directive was adopted in 2000 to streamline the EU's large body of water legislation into one overarching strategy. The final missing piece of the framework, a directive on water quality standards, was approved in June 2008, after a compromise by the Council and European Parliament. It protects rivers, lakes and coastal waters against pollution from a range of chemical substances.

The Water Framework Directive imposes a general requirement for ecological protection and a minimum chemical standard for all surface waters. The key element of the directive is the introduction of a model for water management based on 'river basins', or geographical areas, rather than on administrative or political boundaries. The key aims of the Directive:

  • expanding the scope of water protection to all waters, surface waters and groundwater
  • achieving "good status" for all waters by a set deadline
  • water management based on river basins (following the example of e.g. Maas, Rhine and Schelde across-the-borders river basins management)
  • "combined approach" of emission limit values and quality standards getting the prices right (adequate water pricing acts as an incentive for the sustainable use of water resources)
  • getting the citizen involved more closely
  • streamlining legislation (replacing seven old water directives)

Key milestones set for implementing the Water Framework Directive:

  • 2000: Directive entered into force
  • 2003: Deadline for transposition in national law and identification of River Basin Districts and Authorities
  • 2006: Establishment of monitoring network
  • 2008: Draft river basin management plan to be presented
  • 2009: River basin management plan including progamme of measures to be finalised
  • 2010: Pricing policies to be introduced
  • 2015: Environmental objectives to be met
  • 2021: Second management cycle ends
  • 2027: Third management cycle ends, final deadline for meeting objectives

Specific legislation complements the Water Framework Directive:

  • The Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC has been developed in response to the requirements of Article 17 of the Water Framework Directive

  • directive on water quality standards was approved in June 2008; the directive implements good water status for surface waters by setting harmonised quality standards for a list of currently 33 priority substances

  • Ecological Status: The environmental objectives are the core of the Directive and the definition of “good ecological status” is essential. The intercalibration process was initiated to compare national classifications. Decision 2005/646/EC sets out a network of intercalibration sites.

The Water Information System site for Europe – or WISE – is an information platform providing a single entry point to European water-related data. It offers information and services on the status of European waters, the implementation of water policies, and the main water issues addressed at European level. It also offers access to reports and other in-depth information products. The Maritime Affairs site of the Commission gives information specifically on integrated maritime policies. The Environmental Marine Information System (EMIS) enhances the understanding of marine processes, providing access to information derived from research for the general public, decision-makers and researchers.

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