Surface waters - DRAFT

Briefing expired Published 20 Nov 2018 Last modified 16 May 2018
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Surface waters - DRAFT

Indicator

EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Status in surface waters 

NA(1)

Achieve good status of transitional and coastal waters and freshwaters — Water Framework Directive

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

Considering the large proportion of surface waters failing to meet 'good' ecological status, it is unlikely that the objective of achieving good status of waters will be met by 2020

For the further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes the goal of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) that good status should be achieved, enhanced or maintained in transitional, coastal and fresh waters. Achieving good ecological status in surface waters is a critical aspect of this. The quality of Europe's surface waters has improved over the past decades, thanks to higher standards of wastewater treatment, for example, and reductions in agricultural inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. Pollution from agriculture (in particular nutrient losses from agricultural land) and urban and industrial wastewater nevertheless remain significant. Hydromorphological pressures — mainly from hydropower, navigation, agriculture, flood protection and urban development resulting in altered habitats — also affect many surface water bodies. Overall, based on preliminary data, it is estimated that by 2015 the ecological status of just 41 % of EU surface water bodies was good or high. Only limited improvements are expected over the 2016-2021 period making it unlikely that the objective of achieving good status of waters will be met. Full implementation of the management measures under the Water Framework Directive, in combination with full implementation of other relevant directives (e.g. Urban Waste Water Treatment, Nitrates Directive) is needed in order to restore the ecological status or potential of surface waters.

Setting the scene 

One of the goals of the 7th EAP (EU, 2013) is that the impact of pressures on transitional, coastal and fresh waters (including surface and groundwaters) should be significantly reduced to achieve, maintain or enhance good status, as defined by the Water Framework Directive. This briefing addresses only surface waters. Surface waters make up the majority of the volume of EU waters and are important habitats, providing key support to society and the economy throughout Europe, while clean, unpolluted waters are essential for our ecosystems. Surface waters have traditionally been the disposal route for human, agricultural and industrial waste, which has damaged their water quality. They have also been altered (by dams, canalisation etc.) to facilitate agriculture and urbanisation, to produce energy and to protect against flooding, all of which can result in damage to their hydromorphology.

Policy targets and progress

The main aim of EU water policy is to ensure that a sufficient quantity of good quality water is available for people's needs and the environment. The Water Framework Directive (EU, 2000) stipulates that 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. The 7th EAP mirrored this objective and called for all European water bodies to reach 'good' status by 2020.

During the last 30 years, significant progress has been made in reducing pollution in numerous European water bodies, in particular thanks to improved wastewater treatment and also because of reductions in agricultural inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. Water quality in Europe has therefore improved significantly in recent decades, and the effects of pollutants have decreased (EEA 2015a, 2015b). Pollution from agriculture (in particular nutrient losses from agricultural land) and urban and industrial wastewater nevertheless remain significant. For decades, sometimes centuries, humans have altered European surface waters (straightening and canalisation, disconnection of flood plains, land reclamation, dams, weirs, bank reinforcements, etc.) to facilitate agriculture and urbanisation, produce energy and protect against flooding. These activities have resulted in damage to the morphology and hydrology of the water bodies, i.e. to their hydromorphology.

Based on preliminary data of the second River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) (reported in 2015) (EEA, 2018), only 41 % of the surface water bodies in the EU are in good or high ecological status. The remaining surface water bodies will need mitigation and/or restoration measures to meet the Water Framework Directive objective (Figure 1).

Rivers and transitional waters are, on average, in a worse condition than lakes and coastal waters. Concerns about the ecological status of surface water bodies are most pronounced for central and north-western Europe, in areas with intensive agricultural practices and high population densities. The status of coastal and transitional waters in the Black Sea and greater North Sea regions is also of concern.

Figure 1. Ecological status or potential of classified rivers, lakes, coastal and transitional waters based on information reported under the second River Basin Management Plans (2015) of the Water Framework Directive, EU

Note: Data from Greece, Ireland and Lithuania are missing.

The second RBMPs indicate only a limited expected improvement in the ecological status of surface waters from 2016 to 2021 (EEA, 2018). 

Despite ongoing efforts, given the current ecological status of surface waters and the fact that expected improvement is limited, it is unlikely that the objective of achieving good status of waters will be met. Full implementation of the management measures under the Water Framework Directive, in combination with full implementation of other relevant directives, such as the Urban Waste Water Treatment (EU, 1999a) and the Nitrates (EU, 1999b) Directives, is needed in order to restore the ecological status or potential of surface waters.

Country level information

NOTE TO THE REVIEWERS: THIS SECTION WILL ONLY BE UPDATED IN NOVEMBER FOLLOWING THE EIONET CONSULTATION ON THE 2ND RBMPS REPORTED BY THE COUNTRIES. AT PRESENT THE SECTION BELOW IS THE ONE THAT WAS PUBLISHED IN DECEMBER 2016 AND IT WAS BASED ON THE RESULTS FROM THE 1ST RBMPS.

As Figure 2 illustrates, the percentage of water bodies that have 'good' ecological status varies between river basin districts. Surface water bodies in north-western Europe have the lowest status and/or greatest potential for improvement. In Belgium (Flanders), northern Germany and the Netherlands, the ecological status or potential of more than 90 % of surface waters is reported to be 'less than good' (i.e. moderate, poor or bad). Other problem areas include the Czech Republic, southern England, northern France, southern Germany, Hungary and Poland, as well as several individual river basin districts in other EU Member States, where the status or potential of 70-90 % of freshwater bodies (lakes and rivers) is reported to be 'less than good'. The status of coastal and transitional waters in the Black Sea and greater North Sea regions is also of great concern. 

Figure 2. Percentage of classified surface water bodies in different river basin districts whose ecological status or potential is less than good. Rivers and lakes (top panel), coastal and transitional waters (bottom panel)

Source: WISE WFD Database.

Note: Switzerland data sets on river and lake water quality reported in the framework of EEA priority data flows are not compatible with the EU Water Framework Directive assessments and are not included above.

Outlook beyond 2020 

Further efforts will be required beyond 2020 to achieve a 'good' status for all surface waters. To achieve good status, Member States will have to address the pressures affecting water bodies. Pollution is one pressure (e.g. run-off from agriculture, wastewater from households and industry), while morphological changes, overabstraction and hydrological changes affecting water flow also play a role. Full implementation of the Water Framework Directive throughout all sectors will be needed to reduce these pressures and in individual river basins it will be necessary to commit users from each sector (e.g. the agriculture sector) to focusing on delivering healthy water bodies with good status.

About the indicator

Achieving good status involves meeting certain standards for the ecology, chemistry, morphology and quantity of waters. In general terms, 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). This indicator is defined as the number of surface water bodies reaching at least 'good' ecological status or 'good' ecological potential. Ecological status and potential is a criterion for the quality of the structure and functioning of surface water ecosystems. More specifically, a surface water body has reached good ecological status when 'the values of the biological quality elements for the surface water body type show low levels of distortion resulting from human activity, but deviate only slightly from those normally associated with the surface water body type under undisturbed conditions' (EU, 2000).

Ecological status is used here as a proxy for the overall status of waters. This is because ecological status is influenced by water quality (e.g. pollution levels of all types) as well as by the amount of available water. In addition, surface waters constitute the majority of EU waters. Water quantity issues are addressed in the Freshwater use briefing (AIRS_PO2.4, 2017), which covers both surface and ground waters.

The indicator covers only the current status of surface waters, as reported in the second RBMPs (2015) that were prepared in the context of implementing the WFD.

Footnotes and references

(1)  The status in 2015 (reported in the second RBMPs) is not fully comparable with the status in 2009 (reported in the first RBMPs). This is because following the first RBMPs, Member States introduced better or new ecological monitoring programmes with more monitoring sites and more quality elements studied. These improvements mean that the ecological status classification results are now a better interpretation of the general health of the water environment.

 

EEA, 2012, European waters — Assessment of status and pressures, EEA Report No 8/2012, European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/european-waters-assessment-2012 ) accessed 21 August 2017.

EEA, 2015a, 'Nutrients in freshwater (CSI 020)', European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/nutrients-in-freshwater/nutrients-in-freshwater-assessment-published-6) accessed 1 September 2017.

EEA, 2015b, 'Nutrients in transitional, coastal and marine waters (CSI 021)', European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/nutrients-in-transitional-coastal-and-3/assessment) accessed 1 September 2017.

EEA, 2018, forthcoming, State of water report, European Environment Agency.

EU, 1991a, Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste water treatment (OJ L135/40, 30.5.1991).

EU, 1991b, Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (OJ L 375, 31.12.1991, p. 1–8).

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1–73).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', Annexe A, paragraph 28b (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

AIRS briefings

AIRS_PO2.4, 2017, Freshwater use, European Environment Agency.

 

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

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