Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is designed to improve and integrate the way water bodies are managed throughout Europe. In the UK, much of the implementation work will be undertaken by competent authorities. It came into force on 22 December 2000, and was put into UK law (transposed) in 2003. Member States must aim to reach good chemical and ecological status in inland and coastal waters by 2015 subject to certain limited exceptions. It is designed to:

  • 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 of water, especially by ‘priority’ and ‘priority hazardous’ substances
  • ensure progressive reduction of groundwater pollution

The WFD establishes a strategic framework for managing the water environment. It requires a management plan for each river basin to be developed 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 (the “competent authority” responsible for implementation of the WFD) published the first set of River Basin Management Plans for England and Wales.

In April 2011 Defra announced additional funding to help deliver WFD objectives providing WFD objectives over four years from 2011-2015. The funding will be used for a range of projects such as habitat improvements e.g. removing redundant structures which prevent fish migration, and tackling water pollution issues. In 2011/12, Defra has allocated £18m of this funding for such projects.

Part of the additional funding is being used to establish a Catchment Restoration Fund (CRF), for England only, which runs initially for three years from 2012/13, and will establish projects from April 2012. The aim of the CRF is to make a significant amount of the overall funding open to bids from third sector organisations. The Fund is being administered by the Environment Agency. Visit the Environment Agency’s website for further details.

Latest news

3 February 2012: £28 million fund announced to clean up England’s rivers and encourage local wildlife to flourish (press release). Eligibility and how to apply (Environment Agency website)

21 July 2011: Direction to the Environment Agency – The Chemical Analysis of Water Status (Technical Specifications) Directions 2011 published ISBN 978-0-85521-498-2 (PDF 90KB)

The Directions transpose the QAQC Directive (Directive 2009/90/EC) which lays down technical specifications for chemical analysis and monitoring of water status in accordance with the WFD. The Directions require the Environment Agency to apply the technical specifications to the relevant analytical procedures. These Directions come into force on 20 August 2011.

Groundwater Directive

Groundwater (underground water) is an important resource providing base flows for rivers as well as drinking water. Its contamination can therefore be dangerous to human, aquatic plant, and aquatic animal health, and is difficult and expensive to remedy. The 1980 Groundwater Directive 80/68/EEC and the 2006 Groundwater Daughter Directive 2006/118/EC of the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) are the main  European legislation in place to protect groundwater. Under Article 22 of the WFD the 1980 Directive is due to be repealed in December 2013.

The European legislation has been transposed into national legislation by regulations and Directions to the Environment Agency. Guidance on the regulations is also available.

Codes of Practice have also been produced aimed at high risk activities and sectors which have the potential to pollute groundwater. The codes will need to be updated to bring them into line with recent legislation.

Member States must produce a list of hazardous substances in order to implement the legislation. The Joint Agencies Groundwater Directive Group is established to revise the UK list of hazardous substances.

Specific national legislation and a guidance note are in place to protect groundwater from oil tanks at ground level i.e. not for underground oil tanks.

Priority Substances

The ‘Priority Substances’ Directive 2008/105/EC (PSD) is a ‘Daughter’ Directive of the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) which sets out a European “priority list” of substances posing a threat to or via the aquatic environment. The PSD establishes Environmental Quality Standards for Priority Substances which have been set at levels of concentration which are safe for the aquatic environment and for human health. In addition to the objective of achieving such Environmental Quality Standards (EQS), there is a further objective for the progressive reduction of discharges of Priority Substances, and for a sub-set called Priority Hazard Substances, a requirement to stop such discharges within 20 years of appropriate measures being introduced.

As part of the WFD the list of Priority Substances is reviewed every 4 years by the European Commission. A review is currently underway and it is expected that there will be further substances added to the current list of 33 Priority Substances (and groups of substances), when (or if) a new Directive is agreed

The WFD also requires countries to establish both a list of dangerous substances (called ‘Specific Pollutants’) that are being discharged in significant quantities and EQS for them. The list of Specific Pollutants will be reviewed every 6 years to tie in with the 6-yearly WFD river basin plans.

Measures to achieve all these objectives above are subject to disproportionate cost and technical infeasibility considerations.

A list of such dangerous substances (including those from other European legislation e.g. the Dangerous Substances Directive) and EQS has been established and is listed in the August 2010 Direction to the Environment Agency.

Abandoned Metal Mines

Abandoned metal mines (‘metal mines’) are a highly significant source of water pollution in some water bodies as they discharge high concentrations of metals (e.g. lead, cadmium, zinc and iron) into rivers, lakes, sea and groundwater. Recent research has identified that 226 Water Framework Directive water bodies are impacted by metal mines with a further 243 probably impacted out of a total of 6910 water bodies i.e. 6.8%.

However, there is no sustainable technology available to treat discharges from metal mines (with the exception of metal mines discharging iron) as they rely on significant inputs of chemicals and energy. Defra have therefore funded a research programme to investigate the possibility of developing a viable treatment which is sustainable and cost-effective. The research is proceeding and is expected to be finalised towards the end of 2011.

Catchment Based Approach

This approach will focus on the management of land and water in a co-ordinated and sustainable way to balance environmental, economic and social demands at a catchment scale. Our vision for the approach is to work with stakeholders to establish a framework for integrated catchment management across England by the end of 2013. This will support the 2nd cycle of River Basin Management Plans and inform the strategy for future rollout to deliver the objectives under the Water Framework Directive. The approach is currently in a ‘pilot phase’ which will be reporting early 2012. Find out more…

Key publications and documents


Page last modified: 24 August 2012