press release, 27. February 2017

New standards for better water quality in Europe

Researchers present recommendations for revision of the EU Water Framework Directive

The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) is due to be revised by 2019. The necessary work process is already in full swing and scientific research is providing important input. In a recent study under the auspices of the UFZ, an international team of researchers formulated recommendations designed to improve the monitoring, assessment and management of pollutants. The study was recently published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

How can we minimise the pollutants in Europe’s bodies of water and provide a near-natural habitat for plants and animals? Photo: UFZ / André Künzelmann
How can we minimise the pollutants in Europe’s bodies of water and provide a near-natural habitat for plants and animals?
Photo: UFZ / André Künzelmann
 Photo: UFZ / André Künzelmann

Photo: UFZ / André Künzelmann

The European Water Framework Directive has been in force since 2000. Its purpose is to ensure that rivers, lakes, coastal waters and groundwater achieve a 'good status’ by 2027. This means that bodies of water should contain only minimal pollutants and should provide a near-natural habitat for plants and animals.
Crucially, the European Water Framework Directive looks at bodies of water without regard to international borders - in the case of rivers, from source to estuary. "This is globally unique in this form. It’s the reason why many countries regard the European Water Framework Directive as an ideal model," says environmental chemist Dr. Werner Brack from the UFZ.

However, Europe still has a long way to go to achieve its goal. In many places there is a need to implement concrete measures to improve the water body structure, restore the continuity of surface water and reduce contamination with nutrients and pollutants with much more consistency than has been the case so far. "But the directive itself also has shortcomings, which is why it needs to be revised by 2019," says Werner Brack. Under his leadership, scientists from the European research project SOLUTIONS and the European research network NORMAN have carefully examined these shortcomings and come up with recommendations for improved pollutant monitoring and water management.

Improving monitoring
The Water Framework Directive currently lists 45 pollutants referred to as priority substances. To have good water quality, a body of water is only allowed to contain small amounts of these substances. However, there are also more than 100 000 different chemical substances which we use every day and which end up in our environment and our water. So, most of these are not included in the assessment of water quality under the current EU Water Framework Directive. "Monitoring based on individual substances is expensive, ignores the majority of substances and fails to address the actual problems. Most of the priority substances were already removed from the market and replaced with other chemical substances with often very similar effects. Adding new substances to the list is a cumbersome political process," says Brack.

Furthermore, the Water Framework Directive has so far been limited to the testing of individual substances. However, pollutants don’t affect the environment individually, but exhibit higher toxicity together than the single compounds do individually.. "It's not the presence of a polluting substance that’s crucial but its effect in a body of water," explains Brack. The researchers therefore recommend that, where possible, the monitoring of water quality should be switched from the chemical analysis of individual substances to effect-based methods such as biological effect tests. This would mean that all substances with the same effect would be recorded, including mixed substances. Expensive chemical analysis would only be necessary where certain effect thresholds were exceeded.

Improving assessment
The team of researchers also sees a need to change the way water quality is assessed. According to the Water Framework Directive it is always the worst component that determines whether a body of water is classified as having a good chemical or ecological status - even when this component is impossible to influence through water management measures, as is the case with pollutants from incineration processes. This appears very protective but has the result that many bodies of water cannot achieve management targets even if significant improvements are made to key components. Brack notes: "The current rules provide too few incentives to solve problems and in many cases result in inaction. We are therefore proposing that measures to improve water quality should be rewarded through a more sophisticated system of assessment." This includes the creation of incentives for good monitoring. Currently, many member states fail to regularly measure and analyse pollutants which should in fact be monitored by law. And they are actually rewarded for this because the less they measure, the less often they measure and the poorer the analysis, the lower the identified risk and thus the need for reduction measures. For the new Water Framework Directive, the researchers are therefore proposing a reversed burden of proof. In areas where no data is collected due to inadequate monitoring, model values could be used for water body assessment. Countries which failed to supply data on time would then have to prove with measurements that the actual status was better than predicted levels.

Improving management
Simply measuring and assessing water quality is however not enough to improve the status of a body of water - monitoring must be followed up with appropriate measures. "In our recent study, we provide recommendations for a more solution-focused approach to water management in which monitoring, assessment and potential measures should be much more closely linked from the outset than is currently the case," says Brack.

For example, sewage treatment processes are an important and relatively predictable source of pollution in streams and rivers which can cause effect thresholds to be exceeded. The authors suggest that, as a first step, it should be established to what extent the measured polluting effect of river water correlates with expectations based on the proportion of sewage and degree of cleaning. Improved wastewater treatment in the sewage plant would then be the best means of achieving quality targets. If the observed polluting effect is higher than expected, the authors recommend various approaches to identify specific pollutants and their sources and if possible eliminate them before they reach the sewage plant. The emphasis should be on examining possible alternatives for quality improvement rather than persisting with the definition of water body status. "This also helps us to find solutions that address several problems at once," says Brack. "For example, sufficiently wide marginal areas planted with bushes not only contribute to reducing the ingress of pesticides in bodies of water, but also help to prevent over-fertilisation and raised temperatures in the water. On top of that, they also provide a valuable habitat for many animals and plants."

As studies in the EU project SOLUTIONS have shown, the improvement of water quality in some cases also requires the harmonisation of the many environmental quality and chemical safety regulations at European and national level with the Water Framework Directive. The researchers hope that the results from SOLUTIONS and NORMAN will help to provide additional approaches for the revision of the European Water Framework Directive - and therefore pave the way to more sustainable water usage in Europe.

The EU project SOLUTIONS brings together 39 partners from 17 countries worldwide. It is receiving €12 million in funding from the European Union until 2018. Its aim is to develop tools and models to assess the risk of the cocktail of chemicals in European water bodies. SOLUTIONS develops methods to detect substances requiring priority treatment and proposes solutions for their reduction.

The European research network NORMAN promotes cooperation and information-sharing among teams of researchers in various countries in relation to the monitoring of previously unregulated substances in the environment.

Brack W, Dulio V, A?gerstrand M, Allan I, Altenburger R, Brinkmann M, Bunke D, Burgess RM, Cousins I, Escher BI, Herna?ndez FJ, Hewitt LM, Hilscherova? K, Hollender J, Hollert H, Kase R, Klauer B, Lindim C, Lo?pez Herra?ez D, Mie?ge C, Munthe J, O'Toole S, Posthuma L, Ru?del H, Scha?fer RB, Sengl M, Smedes F, van de Meent D, van den Brink PJ, van Gils J, van Wezel AP, Vethaak AD, Vermeirssen E, von der Ohe PC, Vrana B (2017) Towards the review of the European Union Water Framework Directive: Recommendations for more efficient assessment and management of chemical contamination in European surface water resources. Science of the Total Environment. DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.10.104

Further information:
NORMAN research network:


Further information

Dr. Werner Brack
Head of the UFZ Department of Effect-Directed Analysis
Phone: ++49 341 235 1531

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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