EU policies for the management of subterranean water bodies

Speaker: Sara Johansson

Senior Policy Officer
European Environmental Bureau

In the year 2000, EU Member States adopted the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC, WFD), the main water law to protect water in Europe. The WFD has the overarching objective to achieve good status of Europe’s surface and groundwaters and to prevent their deterioration. For a groundwater body to be designated as being in good status, chemical and quantitative parameters need to be fulfilled. This includes compliance with certain pollution thresholds as well as ensuring that abstraction does not exceed available groundwater resources, nor negatively affects connected surface waters or terrestrial ecosystems.

While the principal deadline to reach the environmental objectives of the WFD was in 2015, almost 10 years after this deadline and more than 20 years after the adoption of the Directive, EU Member States are far from delivering on their obligations. More than half of Europe’s waters are not in good status and placed under different kinds of exemptions from this objective, such as deadline extensions. After 2027 however, the Member States will have limited scope to justify failures to achieve good status.

The Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC, GWD) establishes the criteria and procedures for the assessment of chemical status of groundwater. It sets EU-wide groundwater quality standards for nitrates and pesticides and requires Member States to set threshold values for substances of national concern.

The groundwater pollutants regulated under the GWD should be reviewed by the European Commission every 6 years. In October 2022, the Commission presented their proposal, which included two pharmaceuticals (an anticonvulsant and an antibiotic) and three groups of pollutants (PFAS, pharmaceuticals and a group of pesticide degradation products). If the proposal is agreed by the Council and the European Parliament, Member States will be required to take measures to meet the quality standards for these pollutants and to reverse upward concentration trends.

Agriculture is a key pressure on groundwater systems. The Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) requires Member States identify waters at risk of nutrient pollution resulting from agricultural activities and to establish codes of good agricultural practices and measures to prevent and reduce water pollution from nitrates. It is therefore a key pillar to the WFD. However, like many other pieces of environmental law, the Nitrates Directive has been poorly implemented. The latest implementation report showed that 14% of groundwater monitoring stations reported nitrate concentrations above the EU drinking water limits.

Significantly increased ambition by the Member States is needed to reach the environmental objectives of the WFD by 2027. This would be aided by swift enforcement action by the European Commission when agreed-upon rules are not followed. Additionally, water protection objectives need to be streamlined into other pieces of legislation, such as agricultural and industrial policies, to avoid conflicting efforts.