Surface waters

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 07 Dec 2018
9 min read
Surface waters

Indicator

EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Status of surface waters

Yellow triangle: stable or unclear trend (1)

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

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

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

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

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 recent decades thanks to higher standards of waste water treatment, for example, and reductions in agricultural inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. Pollution from agriculture 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.
Based on the second River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) from 2015, around 40 % of surface waters in the EU (rivers, lakes, and transitional and coastal waters) have achieved good ecological status. Overall, the second RBMPs show limited change in ecological status compared with the first RBMPs from 2009; for most water bodies the ecological status remained similar in both sets of RBMPs. It is unlikely that the objective of achieving good status of waters will be met by 2020 given the large proportion of surface waters still failing to meet good ecological status. 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 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 groundwater) should be significantly reduced to achieve, maintain or enhance good status, as defined in 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 waste water 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 2018a, 2015). Pollution from agriculture (in particular nutrient losses from agricultural land), and urban and industrial waste water, nevertheless, remain significant. For decades, sometimes centuries, humans have altered European surface water bodies (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 the second River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) from 2015, which use data from 25 Member States, around 40 % of surface waters (rivers, lakes, and transitional and coastal waters) have achieved good ecological status in the EU. The remaining surface water bodies will need mitigation and/or restoration measures to meet the Water Framework Directive objective (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Ecological status or potential of all surface water bodies, EU

Notes:
1. The figure is based on information reported under the second River Basin Management Plans of the Water Framework Directive. These plans were finalised in 2015 and were reported in 2016 and 2017. The results cover the period up to 2015.
2. All SWBs: All Surface Water Bodies, i.e. rivers, lakes, and coastal and transitional waters.
3. Data from Greece, Ireland and Lithuania are missing.

 

Overall, the second RBMPs show limited change in ecological status, as most water bodies had achieved similar status in the first (2009) and second (2015) RBMPs. The overall ecological status reported in the second RBMPs has not improved since the first RBMPs. The status of many individual elements (biological quality elements and supporting physico-chemical and hydromorphological quality elements) that make up the ecological status has, nevertheless, become generally better than the overall ecological status. Ecological status has improved for some biological quality elements from the first to the second RBMPs (EEA, 2018b).

The main pressures are point (e.g. waste water) and diffuse source pollution (e.g. agriculture), and various hydromorphological pressures. Diffuse source pollution affects 38 % of surface water bodies and point source pollution affects 18 %, while hydromorphological pressures affect 40 %. The main impacts of the pressures on surface water bodies are nutrient enrichment, chemical pollution and altered habitats due to morphological changes. 

Despite ongoing efforts, given that about 60 % of surface waters in the EU have still not achieved good ecological status, 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, 1991a) and the Nitrates (EU, 1991b) Directives, is needed in order to restore the ecological status or potential of surface waters.

Country level information

As Figure 2 illustrates, the percentage of water bodies in less than ‘good’ ecological status varies between river basin districts. Surface water bodies in north-western Europe have the lowest status. In Belgium (Flanders), northern Germany and the Netherlands, the ecological status 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 of 70-90 % of freshwater bodies (lakes and rivers) is reported to be ‘less than good’.

Figure 2. Percentage of surface water bodies in less than good ecological status or potential by country

Source: 
Results are based on WISE-SoW database including data from 24 Member States (EU-28 except Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Slovenia). Water bodies failing to achieve good status, by RBD; see also Surface water bodies: Ecological status or potential (group) and Surface water bodies failing to achieve good status by RBD.

 

Note: 
1. The map is based on information reported under the second River Basin Management Plans of the Water Framework Directive. These plans were finalised in 2015, and reported in 2016 and 2017. The results cover the period up to 2015.

2. RBD: River Basin Districts.
3. The percentages are based only on known ecological status or potential (i.e. they do not take into account unknown status). Caution is needed when comparing results between Member States as the results can be significantly affected by the methodology applied by individual Member States.
4. Data sets on surface water body quality for Switzerland reported in the framework of EEA priority data flows are not compatible with the EU Water Framework Directive assessments and are not included in the figure.

Outlook beyond 2020

Further effort will be required beyond 2020 to achieve ‘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, waste water from households and industry), while morphological changes, over abstraction 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 of surface water bodies 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 achieving at least ‘good’ ecological status or ‘good’ ecological potential. Ecological status and potential are criteria for the quality of the structure and functioning of surface water ecosystems. More specifically, a surface water body has achieved 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, 2018), which covers both surface and ground waters.

The indicator covers only the current status of surface waters, as reported in the second RBMPs (EEA, 2018b) that were prepared in the context of implementing the WFD.

Footnotes and references

(1)  The ecological 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 18 June 2018.

EEA, 2015, ‘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 18 June 2018.

EEA, 2018a, forthcoming, ‘Nutrients in freshwater (CSI 020)’ (http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/nutrients-in-freshwater/nutrients-in-freshwater-assessment-published-6), European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2018b, European waters — Assessment of status and pressures 2018, EEA Report No 7/2018, 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, 2018, Freshwater use, European Environment Agency. 
 

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

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