The EU Water Framework Directive

With the European Water Framework Directive, which entered into force in 2000, water bodies are seen holistically as habitats, and their water is no longer seen as consumer good.

The protection of waters plays a crucial role in this respect. The goal is a transboundary and sustainable management of the resource water and the preservation of the ecological functionality of water bodies as ecosystems.

With a view to the water balance, terrestrial ecosystems and wetlands, which are dependent on the waters, are also included in the considerations.

Our riverine landscapes have been very much marked and also changed by human activities over centuries. The fundamental objective of the Water Framework Directive is the “good status” in all European waters. For surface waters this means to reach a “good ecological and chemical status” and for groundwater to reach a “good chemical and quantitative status”. Furthermore, it is stipulated that the status of the bodies of water must not be deteriorated (principle of non-deterioration)

In this way a good and comparable standard is to be established all over Europe.

Within the framework of a given schedule, the waters must be preserved in a good status or brought into a good status until 2015 - in exceptional cases until 2027.

For the assessment of this status there are precise requirements to be met, for running waters and lakes the ecological assessment is based on the characterisation of the   biocommunities in waters. In this context it is also taken into consideration that every body of water has, in its natural status, characteristic features, a mountain torrent differs for example from a river in the lowlands. Therefore, the Water Framework Directive stipulates that the waters have to be classified according to types and that their ecological assessment takes place on the basis of the type-specific animals and plants. The structure of water bodies is a parameter for the extent to which this body of water deviates from its natural status. In the same way the chemical status of the water body must comply with exact standards.

A decisive parameter for the quantity of groundwater is the height of the groundwater level. It is mostly directly connected to surface waters, i.e. to rivers, brooks and lakes. However, if it recedes the upper soil layers will dry out. For the description of the groundwater quality characteristic guiding parameters, nutrients, as well as partly other characteristic values, such as heavy metals and plant protection products are measured.  

Surface waters are in a good status if their biocommunities, their structure and their chemical ingredients are only slightly influenced by humans.

Groundwater bodies are in a good status if the chemical ingredients and the quantity are only slightly influenced by humans.

Not all bodies of water are “natural”. There are waters, which have been “considerably modified” by humans, and “artificial waters” like backwater and regulations. With these bodies of water no decisive improvement in terms of ecology can be achieved without considerably restricting human activities or utilisations.

For considerably modified or artificial bodies of water the goal is to reach, instead of the good ecological status, the environmental objective of the good ecological potential

Working programme

It is laid down in a working programme, including schedule in various steps, how a good status shall be reached for the waters by 2015 (by 2027 at the latest).

  • As a first step in the planning process the effects of human activities on the water status have to be represented for defined sections of water (bodies of water). This already took place in the course of a first analysis of the status quo. In the course of this process the risk of missing the given environmental objectives is also assessed (status quo analysis)
  • On the basis of the results the monitoring programme has been established. It started in Austria in 2007 (water status monitoring 2007-2009). Subsequently the ecological status is identified for the bodies of water (rivers, lakes groundwater) by means of measurements or by analogy for similar bodies of water (grouping). The requirements for the assessment of the good status, which means the exact definition of the quality objectives, are laid down in this context in various quality objective ordinances.
  • In a next step the results are published in the National Water Management Plan (NGP Nationaler Gewässerbewirtschaftungsplan). In the waters where the risk to miss the good status is confirmed appropriate measures for improvement have to be carried out (NGP 2009).
  • In the programme of measures it is defined how and when environmental objectives are to be reached.

The first National Water Management Plan was published in Austria at the beginning of 2010 (NGP 2009). In a 6-years cycle the management plans and the objectives met are checked and updated.

Water protection and resource awareness concern all of us.

For this reason, the WFD provides for comprehensive information and participation of the public. The interested public can get involved concerning important questions of water management.

Important objectives

With the EU WFD new emission quality and monitoring standards are set:

Protection of all waters

It means groundwater, surface waters (rivers and lakes) as well as transitional and coastal waters in the EU areas are looked at from a trans-boundary point of view. The last two ones are not represented in Austria as a landlocked country. Water-dependent terrestrial ecosystems are also taken into consideration.

Reaching and preserving the “good status”

For surface waters the status is expressed by a five-level assessment system and shows the quality of structure and functionality of the ecosystem.

The assessment takes place on the basis of specific data from the fields of biology, hydro-morphology and chemistry. Only minor deviations from the reference status typical for the respective type of water body, which means a largely uninfluenced status of a body of water, are permitted. In general, also the principal of “non-deterioration” has to be taken into consideration: Waters (water sections) which are in a “very good “or “good status” must not be deteriorated. Waters (water sections) which are in a status that is worse than “good” must be brought into the “good status”.

As far as groundwater is concerned, the good chemical and quantitative status has to be reached.

Management of water bodies on the basis of river basin districts

Austria has a share in three international River Basin Districts Flussgebietseinheiten (RBD): Danube, Rhine, and Elbe On their basis the management of the waters is carried out in the form of planning on the protection, the improvement and the sustainable use.

For the RBD management plans are established and programmes of measures are worked out.

Combined approach of emission and immission limitation

The release of substances into the environment by a certain source is called emission. Frequently these substances are pollutants.

Immission is the impact of the emitted (pollutants) substances on plants, animals, and humans as well as on buildings after they have been spread in the environment (air, water, and soil) and also chemically and physically transformed.

It is important in this respect that (hazardous) substances are only released to a limited degree into the environment. In this context the WFD speaks of a “combined approach” to reduce pollution, which limits emission- and immission-based contamination.

Cost-covering water prices for water supply and disposal

In the context of water utilisation, economic analyses are required as well, which take into consideration a cost-coverage principle for water services.

Public participation

In the course of the implementation of the WFD the citizens are involved in the planning and decision-making processes.

published at 11.12.2020, Kommunikation und Service (Abteilung Präs. 5)