The Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive is the most substantial piece of water legislation ever produced by the European Commission, and will provide the major driver for achieving sustainable management of water in the UK and other Member States for many years to come.

It requires that all inland and coastal waters within defined river basin districts must reach at least good status by 2015 and defines how this should be achieved through the establishment of environmental objectives and ecological targets for surface waters. The result will be a healthy water environment achieved by taking due account of environmental, economic and social considerations.

Article 14 of the Directive requires Member States to encourage the active involvement of all interested parties in its implementation. In particular, public consultation is essential during the production, review and updating of river basin management plans which form the central theme of the Directive.

For public consultation to be meaningful people will need a basic understanding of the principal features of the Directive and how these relate to the situation in their own local river basin.

This Information Note provides an understanding of the principal features of the Directive. Further information on what is required by the Directive, based on an introductory guide published by the Foundation for Water Research, is provided in the accompanying Information pages.

Why is this Directive needed?

Over the past 30 years, a series of EC Directives have had a major influence on UK water law and regulation. They addressed priority issues such as water quality objectives for waters used for specific purposes, the control of dangerous substances, the protection of the sea against pollution, the preservation of the fundamental biological and ecological balances of the planet and the adoption of industry specific measures to reduce pollution.

In the 1990s there was concern at the fragmented nature of existing Directives and the lack of progress with their implementation. Inadequate measures for the protection of groundwater were also of concern. In addition there was pressure for a Directive to protect aquatic ecosystems. This culminated in the development, by the European Commission, of a proposal for a more comprehensive approach to water policy that took account of the need for the following:

  • A high level of environmental protection
  • The precautionary principle
  • Preventive action
  • The elimination of pollution at source
  • The polluter pays principle
  • Costs and benefits

Further considerations were the need for international collaboration for certain river basins which cross Member States’ boundaries and the variability of environmental conditions in the different regions of the Community. Also considered was the principle of subsidiarity, which allows for decisions to be made at individual Member State level where these can be demonstrated to be environmentally acceptable, cost effective and to fall within the overall requirements of the Directive.

Who was involved in the preparation of the Directive?

The Directive was the result of a co-decision process by which the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have joint responsibility for the final text. A conciliation process was needed to resolve the differences between these two bodies. Many organisations, including national and local governments, water service providers, agriculture, industry, consumer associations and environmental non-governmental organisations, were involved in the consultation process leading to the final draft.

Who should be aware of the Directive and what it means?

The Directive will impact on every aspect of water use: domestic, industrial, agricultural, leisure and environmental conservation. Besides restrictions on point source discharges (e.g. sewage discharge), the achievement of good status will mean tackling the problem of diffuse pollution from agriculture and contaminated land. In some instances, it may require river re-grading work or the reversal of land drainage schemes to restore lost habitats. Environmental organisations hope that implementation of the Directive will result in major improvements to the biodiversity of water habitats.

What are the key features of the Directive?

    The key features of the Directive:

  • The concept of river basin management is introduced to all Member States through the establishment of river basin districts2 as the basic management units. For international rivers these river basin districts (RBDs) will transcend national boundaries (Article 3).
  • For each river basin district a river basin management plan must be developed, including a programme of measures3, and these will form the basis for the achievement of water quality protection and improvement (Articles 11 and 13).
  • Although its prime aims are environmental, the Directive embraces, all three principles of sustainable development. Environmental, economic and social needs must all be taken into account when river basin management plans are being developed (Article 9).
  • The river basin management plans will not allow further deterioration to existing water quality. With certain defined exceptions, the aim is to achieve at least good status for all water bodies4 in each river basin district. Definitions of good status for surface and groundwater are given below. Geographical factors are allowed for when good status is defined and the principle of subsidiarity allows Member States some freedom within the overall requirements of the Directive (Article 4).
  • The two previously competing concepts of water quality management, the use of environmental quality standards and the use of emission limit values are brought together by the Directive in a new dual approach (Article 10).
  • To overcome the previously piecemeal nature of water environment regulation, a number of existing directives will be replaced when new local standards are developed to meet the Directive requirements. These local standards must be at least as stringent as those being replaced. Daughter directives will be introduced to deal with groundwater quality and for priority substances (formerly known as dangerous substances) (Article 16).
  • Measures to conserve water quantity are introduced as an essential component of environmental protection. Unless minimal, all abstractions must be authorised and, for groundwater, a balance struck between abstraction and the recharge of aquifers (Article 11).
  • The polluter pays principle is incorporated through a review of measures for charging for water use, including full environmental cost recovery (Article 9).
  • Public participation and the involvement of stakeholders is a key requirement of the river basin management planning process, thus satisfying this aspect of Agenda 215 (Article 14).
  • 2River basin districts – river catchments or groups of catchments.
    3Programme of measures – actions to achieve the environmental objectives of the Directive.
    4Water body – all surface freshwater bodies (including lakes, streams & rivers), groundwaters, estuaries and coastal waters out to one mile from low-water.
    5An agenda for the 21st century to implement sustainable development as expressed in a 400 page negotiated document from the UN Conference on Environment & Development in 1992.

What is River Basin Management Planning?

River basin management is not new to the United Kingdom. It has been practised in England and Wales since the formation of the former Water Authorities in 1974. The role was later inherited and enhanced by the formation of the National Rivers Authority and more recently the Environment Agency (EA). In Scotland the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and in Northern Ireland the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) have, to varying degrees, had this duty. Under these arrangements, there has been significant improvement to river water quality in the UK, particularly over the last decade. However, water quality objectives set throughout this period tended to be user-based and were not statutory. Furthermore, economic and social aspects were not formerly a part of the river basin management process. The Directive imposes new disciplines and approaches that will impact significantly on the environmental regulators.

The river basin planning process is cyclical and the Directive requires periodic updates to the river basin management plans and associated programmes of measures on a six-yearly basis.

What is Public Information and Consultation?

The active involvement of interested parties is a core principle of the river basin planning process as defined in Article 14 of the Directive, in particular during the production, review and updating of the river basin management plans.

The involvement of interested parties in the UK began with the public consultation process that preceded the incorporation of the Directive into law. In England and Wales, respondents to this process and other notable stakeholders were invited to join a national stakeholder group to act as a sounding board on implementation issues. Similar arrangements are in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Directive requires that Member States shall ensure that, for each river basin district, they publish and make available for comments to the public (including users) the following:

  • A timetable and work programme for the production of the plan and the consultation measures to be taken, at least three years before the beginning of the plan period.
  • An overview of the significant water management issues identified in the river basin, at least two years before the beginning of the plan period.
  • Draft copies of the river basin management plan, at least one year before the beginning of the plan period.
  • On request, access to background documents and information used for the development of the draft plan.
  • To allow active involvement and consultation with interested parties, including stakeholders and the public, Member States must allow six months for written comments on these documents.

What are the definitions of Surface Water
and Groundwater Status?

‘Good surface water status’ is that achieved by a surface water body when both its ‘ecological status’ and its ‘chemical status’ are at least good.

‘Ecological status’ is an expression of the structure and functioning of aquatic ecosystems associated with surface waters. Such waters are classified as of ‘good ecological status’ when they meet Directive requirements.

‘Good surface water chemical status’ means that concentrations of pollutants in the water body do not exceed the environmental limit values specified in the Directive.

‘Good groundwater status’ is that achieved by a groundwater body when both its quantitative status and chemical status are good.

‘Quantitative status’ is an expression of the degree to which a body of groundwater is affected by direct and indirect abstractions. If this complies with Directive requirements the status is good.

‘Good chemical status’ is ascribed to a groundwater when it meets Directive requirements for the maximum levels of defined pollutants.

In summary what will the Directive do?

The Water Framework Directive is, without doubt, the most comprehensive approach to water policy ever produced by the EU. Its scope is breathtakingly wide and, at first glance, its detail is daunting. Yet it can be seen that the outline river basin planning process is essentially based on the following elementary steps.

  1. Identify the water bodies that comprise the river basin district and the pressures upon them.
  2. Establish the environmental objectives that signify good status for each water body.
  3. Set up a monitoring programme to measure water body status.
  4. Establish and implement a river basin management plan and a programme of measures to achieve and maintain good status.
  5. Review and update the river basin management plan and the programme of measures to take into account any change of circumstances.

As implementation of the Directive unfolds it will be seen how complex the above steps become. The economic, social and political implications of the sustainable development principles embodied in the river basin management planning process will be observed.


For background papers and all communications relating to the Water Framework Directive from the European Commission, go to the Commission’s website:

Introduction to the new EU Water Framework Directive

Public participation

Links to official WFD web sites in Member states


Non-EC guides to the Water Framework Directive

Chave, P (2001) The EU Water Framework Directive: An Introduction. IWA Publishing.

Foundation for Water Research (2010) The EC Water Framework Directive – An Introductory Guide. FWR.


Other information

Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) River Basin Management Plans. Published 14/11/2012.

EU Legislation summary

The Water Framework Directive: Action Programmes and Adaptation to Climate Change Editor(s): Philippe Quevauviller, Ulrich Borchers, K Clive Thompson, Tristan Simonart. Published 2010.

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