Press release 24th February 2005

MODELKEY – The key to clean surface waters

New large-scale EU project researches river ecosystems

Leipzig. Analysing and evaluating chemical pollution – that is the goal of the new European large-scale project MODELKEY, starting in February. Under the management of the Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig-Halle, Germany (UFZ) researchers in 13 countries will be developing methods to identify so-called key chemicals and their effect on the water ecosystem until the year 2010

River Elbe, Germany

River Elbe, Germany
Source: Mathias Scholz/UFZ

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River Elbe Sand Bank, Germany

Elbe, Sandbucht
Source: Andre Kuenzelmann/UFZ

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Source: Andre Kuenzelmann/UFZ

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Bioindicators Water Fleas

Bioindicators Water Fleas
Source: Andre Kuenzelmann/UFZ

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Bioindicators Fish Eggs

Bioindicators Fish Eggs
Source: Andre Kuenzelmann/UFZ

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Three model rivers will be researched from their source to the mouth: River Elbe (Czech Republic/ Germany), River Schelde (Belgium/ The Netherlands), and River Llobregat (Spain). These three rivers are situated in different climate regions and all suffer from industrial pollution. The findings will later be passed on to all EU member states. The project, involving a total of 25 different research institutions, is subsidised with 8.4 million Euro by the EU. The name of the project, MODELKEY, stands for Models for Assessing and Forecasting the Impact of Environmental Key Pollutants on Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems and Biodiversity. The kick-off for MODELKEY will take place from 28th February to 5th March in Spain.

Background: The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) has committed all states to see that their surface waters are in good chemical and ecological condition by the year 2015. The goal of the guidelines is to create common standards for surface and groundwater. In this way pollution should be stemmed and the condition of the ecosystem improved in order to protect the water resources in the long-term. The Water Framework Directive has divided the ecological water quality into five grades from bad to very good. By 2015 all surface waters should be of at least grade II (good status). In particular many ecosystems in industrialised regions of Europe have not reached the “good” status. Although the chemical parameters in Germany more or less fulfil the requirements, the Ministry of the Environment sees large deficits in the biological parameters. The job of the MODELKEY project is to find the causes of these problems and develop solutions for them.

Even though the EU has made a priority list of 30 chemicals which are monitored already, the scientists see a need for a much greater field of research. “When you think that there are thousands of different chemical combinations in the environment then it is clear: The current grid is just too wide,” explains Werner Brack from UFZ. “That is why we are trying to combine biological and chemical processes as well as different model techniques so that the spectrum on possible problems can be narrowed down step by step, and to finally identify every connection that really is responsible for harmful effects.” The complete ecosystem will be considered. Do changes to an individual organism affect the whole ecosystem? What does it mean for the ecosystem, when for example a particular fish stops reproducing? These are complex questions which have to be answered by 2010.

The preparation of the long-term project alone took two years. Partners had to be found and a structure had to be created. Michaela Hein and Mechthild Schmitt coordinate seven sub-projects and over 150 researchers under the lead of Werner Brack. “We have to develop new innovative techniques in all fields,” Brack paraphrases the coming project. “The challenge is to combine different scientific roots.”
The international research team does not just want to find these key pollutants and explain their effect. The huge volume of data from the surface water control programme from the EU member states are to be put to use. “At the moment the data are stored in different databases in various formats and are therefore extremely difficult to handle. That is why we want to create a central database – working closely with the ministries who today collect data and who will later have to implement the EU Water Framework Directive.” Finally a computer model is to be developed which will offer support to the water authorities in the whole EU when decisions must be made about which area should be decontaminated and how it can be done most effectively. One thing is clear: The EU Water Framework Directive means a lot of extra work for the individual member countries.
Leipzig, 24th February 2005
Tilo Arnhold

Further information are available from:

Dr. Werner Brack
Department of Chemical Ecotoxicology
phone: +49 / (0)341 / 235 – 2656

Doris Böhme / Tilo Arnhold,
Public Relations of Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ
Phone: +49-341-235-2278


(Model for Assessing and Forecasting the Impact of Enviromental Key Pollutants on Freshwater and Marine Ecosystems and Biodiversity) - beteiligte Partner:


Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig-Halle, Germany


University of Antwerp, Belgium


Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Agriculture, Burnham on Crouch, UK


Delft Hydraulics, Delft, The Netherlands


Consorzio Venezia Ricerche, Venice, Italy


Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, Toulouse, France


Instituto de Investigaciones Quimicas y Ambientales J.P. Vila Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Barcelona, Spain


Universitat de Girona, Spain


University of Berne, Switzerland


Veterinary Research Institute, Brno, Czech Republic


Institute of Vertebrate Biology, Brno, Czech Republic


University of Joensuu, Finland


Elbe Water Quality Monitoring Agency, Hamburg, Germany


National Institute for Coastal and Marine Management, The Hague, The Netherlands


Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands


National Research Centre for Dioxins and Related Compounds, Bratislava, Slovak Republic


Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu, Bilthoven, The Netherlands


University of Stuttgart, Germany


St. Petersburg University, Russia


Agencia Catalana de l'Aigua, Barcelona, Spain


University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain


ECT Ökotoxikologie GmbH, Floersheim am Main, Germany


Xenometrics GmbH, Allschwil, Switzerland


Donabaum & Wolfram OEG Technisches Büro für Ökologie, Vienna, Austria