What does the WFD stand for?

The Water Framework Directive: water protection from source to coast

Floodplains are a reservoir for biodiversity (ernstboese / fotolia.com)

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) originally set 2015 as the deadline for the implementation of the "good status" of water bodies. Germany has exhausted the possibility of extending the deadline for almost all bodies of water. But instead of doing everything in its power to reach the new 2027 deadline, Germany is still delaying implementation and is hoping for further deadlines to be extended.

Dedicated water authorities are opposed to the overpowering lobby from the agricultural industry, shipping, transport and mining, which prevent consistent (directive-compliant) implementation in Germany.

Our rivers, lakes, streams, waters off the coast and our groundwater urgently need revitalization. There is a great opportunity in the WFD to create sustainable use of our elixir of life, water, and to make our waters a source of life again.

What exactly does the Water Framework Directive want?

The quality objectives of the WFD are:

  • a largely natural occurrence of plants and fish in the waters;
  • the continuity of streams and rivers for all living beings;
  • redeveloped, near-natural and natural bank areas;
  • Pollutant concentrations within the limit values.

In addition, the current state of our waters (apart from a few, strictly regulated exceptions) may no longer deteriorate with immediate effect.

In order to achieve these goals, a management plan was drawn up, with the measures of which the goals of the WFD are to be met by 2027.

The implementation of the WFD is one of the greatest opportunities for water protection. However, it is already becoming apparent that implementation is slow and that exceptions are to be overused. Almost all bodies of water need additional protection!

Questions and answers on the Water Framework Directive

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What is the Water Framework Directive and what does it regulate?

The European Water Framework Directive is the most important European water law. In 2000, the EU member states agreed to achieve "good status" for all bodies of water by 2015. Further deterioration in water quality is generally not permitted.

Since our waters have been severely damaged in the past centuries and some major projects need more time, the directive also provides that the deadline can be extended to 2027 for individual sections of water. Dike relocation to reconnect the river and floodplain are examples of such large-scale projects. The experience of BUND in Lenzen shows that such projects can be carried out on time and have a high added value for nature and people.

In Germany, however, the deadline has been extended to 2021 or even to 2027 for over 90 percent of all rivers and lakes - often wrongly. Therefore, the BUND and the Nabu have submitted a complaint to the EU Commission.

The aim of the WFD is "good status" of the waters - what exactly does that mean?

Whether the water is in "good condition" depends on various factors.

In order to assess the ecological status of rivers, for example, a check is carried out to determine whether the fish and plants typical of the river are present and how many of them are present. In Germany, almost all rivers (92 percent) do not achieve this goal. To assess the quality of a body of water, the chemical status is also considered. Due to the high level of mercury pollution (e.g. from coal mining), the chemical status of all German waters is poor.

In the case of groundwater, a distinction is made between the quantitative and the chemical state. One third of all groundwater bodies are in a poor chemical condition because of nitrate in particular.

What does the Water Framework Directive have to do with my drinking water?

Healthy waters give us healthy drinking water. Our drinking water is obtained from groundwater, rivers and lakes. Simply drink from a stream - this is usually not recommended. Most of our water has to be treated so that it can be drunk without hesitation. The better the quality of our groundwater, rivers and lakes, the easier it is to treat the water as drinking water.

In Germany, however, drinking water suppliers are struggling with too much nitrate, but also with more and more pollutants such as sulphate and mercury. This means that drinking water wells are closed and the waterworks have to be upgraded with additional cleaning stages at high cost and energy consumption.

Drinking water will remain a safe food in the future - but with rising costs for us consumers. Drinking water prices in Germany rose by a total of 17.6 percent between 2005 and 2016.

Our drinking water needs to be better protected. The BUND demands from politics the committed implementation of the water framework directive, an ambitious reduction program for pesticides and better fertilization. It is wrong that we as consumers pay to have pollution from (agricultural) industry filtered out of our water.

Instead of trying to minimize the damage retrospectively with high costs and effort, substances harmful to the water should not even get into the water. So if we improve the quality of water in accordance with the Water Framework Directive, it will not only benefit nature, but above all us humans.

Can I swim anywhere without hesitation?

Unfortunately, no. There are around 2,000 designated swimming areas and natural pools on the coasts, lakes and rivers in Germany. Bathing here is mostly safe (97 percent met the criteria in 2016). However, if you look at the entire water landscape in Germany, it is only a fraction. For example, there are around 12,000 lakes in Germany.

When certain pathogens (Escheria coli and intestinal enterococci) are found in the water, should not be bathed there. But the pollution from nitrate from agriculture ("algae pest"), pollution from faeces (fertilizer, untreated sewage) or pollutants is often too high.

The better the bodies of water are doing, the more bodies of water are brought into "good status", the more bodies of water would be suitable for bathing. The Water Framework Directive means a better quality of life for everyone. For animal and plant species that would find a habitat in our rivers again, and also for the recreational quality of us humans.

River baths on the Spree, Elbe or the Rhine: this could become a reality if politics were to better protect our water.

German waters are in poor condition. What are the main problems?

Our rivers, lakes and streams suffer from a variety of problems: Valuable habitats for animals and plants have been lost as a result of structural measures. In straightened rivers with fortified banks, fish, mussels, crabs and other aquatic life hardly stand a chance. A lack of patency also makes life in the river more difficult. On the federal waterways, a transverse structure (dams, etc.) blocks the way of the fish to their spawning grounds on average every two kilometers.

Another problem for the quality of our waters are pollutants that get into our water not only directly, for example through discharges from industry, but also indirectly, including through agriculture (pesticides) and road drainage.

The use of our rivers and lakes as cooling water sources for industrial plants also leads to an increase in water temperature. However, some fish species like it rather cool, and the oxygen content is also reduced.

Agriculture is another major burden on the quality of our waters. Nitrate gets into the water through huge amounts of liquid manure (over 200 million cubic meters), which are distributed as fertilizer on our fields every year. In addition, the immense over-fertilization often leads to an excess of nutrients. Algae can multiply unhindered, the lake "tips over", for example blue-green algae plagues.

In addition, lignite mining causes the groundwater levels to drop.

In implementing the Water Framework Directive, Germany has so far made worse progress than most of the other EU member states (21st place out of 26). Why is that?

In order to consistently implement the Water Framework Directive, various formalities have to be complied with. Germany is very well positioned here, but there are still large gaps. That is why BUND and Nabu have submitted a joint complaint to the EU Commission.

On the other hand, Germany must take measures to ensure that all bodies of water achieve a "good status" by 2027. In this practical implementation of the Water Framework Directive, Germany is massively lagging behind. In order to improve the condition of the water, all bodies must pull together. Instead, water authorities and environmentalists often fight alone against the overpowering lobby from agribusiness, transport and business. The water authorities are provided with too little money and insufficient staff to take the necessary measures. Often there is also a lack of the necessary skills.

However, the implementation of the Water Framework Directive is not the sole responsibility of the water authorities. All branches of politics must adhere to European law and promote the consistent implementation of European water protection. The Water Framework Directive has few hard criteria. It leaves the Member States a lot of leeway, so that each country has to develop its own strategies on how to achieve the goal of "good status".

An example: The guideline stipulates that a certain species of insect must be present in a body of water. If it is known that certain agricultural pesticides harm this species of insect, the country must ensure that the use of this pesticide is completely banned or at least restricted in the water environment. However, in Germany there are no sufficiently wide, binding buffer zones (strips of water bodies) between agriculture and water bodies.

Why has the BUND submitted an EU complaint? What does he want to achieve with it?

A complaint to the European Commission is a preliminary step to infringement proceedings. The Commission has repeatedly warned Germany to properly implement the Water Framework Directive. BUND and Nabu were unable to stand idly by as the guideline targets were dragged on.

Filing a complaint was not easy, however. It was only possible to complain about violations of formalities, but not about the failure to take specific measures. These formalities are difficult to prove to the main culprits, such as the agricultural industry.

The following formalities could be clearly proven legally:

  • Unclear responsibilities for federal waterways: There is still no clarification of political responsibilities for all of Germany's major rivers that are designated as federal waterways. The federal waterways are owned by the federal government. However, no ecological measures are currently being taken, as the distribution of competencies is unclear.
  • For all bodies of water that are not in "good condition" there must be a remediation plan that must be implemented consistently. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of a plan that specifies which specific measures have to be carried out. In other cases there is a plan; however, it remains unclear who should implement it, when and with what money. Accordingly, implementation comes to a standstill.
  • Lack of effective measures in the field of agriculture. Unfortunately, it has been shown that voluntary level measures such as advice are rarely actually used.
Why is the Water Framework Directive currently being reviewed by the EU?

It was planned from the outset that the European Commission would review the Water Framework Directive by 2019 at the latest as part of a so-called "review process" and, if necessary, propose changes. Review processes actually serve to check European laws for their effectiveness and efficiency. However, the BUND and many other environmental protection associations fear that the process will be used to significantly weaken European water protection.

Since not a single EU country has implemented the directive satisfactorily so far, it is very likely that the EU will want to postpone the deadlines for implementing the directive again. And this despite the fact that the Member States have had enough time and ten years are still ahead of us to implement them.

In 2027 the directive will be in place for 27 years. Nine years were planned for the creation of the administrative structures, 18 years for the implementation of the measures. It cannot be that the EU countries are rewarded with a further extension of the deadline for their failures and delays. The water framework directive must now be implemented consistently immediately!

How is the decision-making process for the future of the Water Framework Directive going?

The EU member states will meet on 20./21. September at a water conference in Vienna. There they want to develop a common thrust for the future of the Water Framework Directive and prepare it for the EU Commission. Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze is responsible for making decisions about Germany's voice.

The result of the Vienna Water Conference is an important first basis for the decision of the EU Commission. In addition, review processes also involve a public survey of EU citizens, the results of which must also be included in the decision. As with the survey on the Natura 2000 Directive, it will therefore be of crucial importance that as many EU citizens as possible speak out in favor of European water protection in this public survey in autumn 2019.

The BUND will campaign for the preservation of the guideline in its current form throughout the process - publicly, with various participatory campaigns, but also behind the political scenes.

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