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Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive is one of the biggest drivers for investment in the water industry. It has been billed as the most substantial piece of water legislation ever produced by the European Commission. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is designed to improve and integrate the way water bodies are managed throughout Europe. The directive requires all inland and coastal waters to reach ‘good chemical and ecological status’ for surface waters and ‘good status’ for groundwater in terms of quality and quantity by 2015.

The WFD will become the main regulatory machinery in future for protecting and enhancing water quality. It pulls together a number of existing directives into one holistic approach to managing the water environment. The Directive should deliver substantial environmental benefits which, as with other water directives, will need to be paid for.


The Water Framework Directive came into force in December 2000 and was transposed into UK law in 2003. It is designed to:

  • Integrate the way we manage water bodies across Europe
  • Enhance the status and prevent further deterioration of aquatic ecosystems and associated wetlands which depend on the aquatic ecosystems
  • Promote the sustainable use of water
  • Reduce pollution especially by ‘priority’ and ‘priority hazardous‘ substances
  • Ensure progressive reduction of groundwater pollution

    Fundamentally the WFD is a set of guidelines for managing large bodies of water, improving water quality and reducing potential hazards such as flooding. A key feature of the Directive is the introduction of a new definition of water status, which is concerned with the ecological health of surface water as well as chemical standards.

    Key requirements of the Water Framework Directive

  • to establish a holistic approach to managing the water environment, based on river basins, integrating water quantity with quality considerations

  • to set quality objectives for all water bodies and meet those objectives by 2015 in most cases - the key objective is to achieve good status

  • to establish a classification system for surface water that includes chemical, hydromorphological and ecological parameters using criteria set out in the Directive

  • to establish a classification system for groundwater status that includes chemical and qualitative parameters and a requirement for the quality of groundwater not to result in any significant damage to terrestrial ecosystems

  • to have statutory controls in relation to pollution of water bodies from point and diffuse sources

  • to ensure by 2010 an adequate contribution, from key sectors like industry, households and agriculture, to the recovery of costs of water services based on economic analysis

  • to prevent deterioration in the status of water bodies

  • to encourage active involvement of all interested parties in the implementation of the Directive, in particular in the production, review and updating of river basin management plans

  • to promote sustainable water use based on long-term protection of water resources

  • to achieve environmental objectives in a cost-effective way

    Environmental Objectives

    The main new concept introduced by the WFD is that of ’river basins’. It requires a management plan to be developed for each river basin every 6 years. The plans are based on a detailed analysis of the impacts of human activity on the water environment and incorporate a programme of measures to improve water bodies where required. In December 2009 the Environment Agency published the first set of River Basin Management Plans (river basins are mapped areas affected by a water body). In April 2011 Defra announced additional funding to help deliver the WFD objectives over the period 2011-2015.

    The WFD also aims to achieve elimination of hazardous substances by 2020. The WFD introduces Daughter Directives like the Groundwater Directive and the ‘Priority Substances‘ Directive. The latter establishes Environmental Quality Standards for Priority Substances posing a threat to or via the aquatic environment..

    The WFD sets out a timetable for implementation. Details at

    Common Implementation Strategy

    From the outset it was recognised that the WFD raises a number of shared technical challenges and with many river basins being international and crossing territorial borders a common understanding and approach amongst Member States was essential. A Common Implementation Strategy has been set up for Europe, in order to help Member States implement the directive. Working groups and technical groups provide guidance on key activities such as information sharing, technical issues, data management and application, testing and validation.


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