Many ecosystems and economic sectors in Europe depend on the availability of sufficient quality water. Groundwater provides a safe and sustainable resource to meet demands for drinking, agriculture, industry and tourism. It is a finite resource that needs to be protected from pollution and over-exploitation to ensure the long-term sustainability of its use for human activities and natural ecosystems.
Groundwater is a ‘hidden resource’ and groundwater pollution is a serious threat.
As groundwater moves slowly, the impact of human activities lasts for a relatively long time. This means pollution that occurred some decades ago – whether from agriculture, industry or other human activities – is still threatening groundwater quality today, and causing pollutants to accumulate. In some cases, it will continue to do so for several generations to come. Recovery from pollution is not easy, as removing pollutants is difficult. Groundwater resources are also under increasing pressure from water abstraction and climate change. It is difficult to locate and measure the presence and impacts of pollution on groundwater. This leads to a lack of awareness and evidence on its extent.
The EU’s objectives include:
- preventing groundwater pollution
- ensuring that a sufficient quantity of good quality water is available for people's needs, the economy and the environment
- sustainably managing groundwater resources and preserving the natural ecosystems dependent on them
- managing groundwater bodies with the aim of achieving good chemical and quantitative status.
In the EU
Water Framework Directive (WFD)
The Water Framework Directive (WFD) deals with groundwater in a number of different ways to achieve good quantitative and chemical status of groundwater. The latest directive was published on 22 December 2000, establishing “good status” environmental objectives for all waters – river, lake, coastal, transitional waters and groundwater – to be achieved by the end of 2015, or by 2027 at the latest, when justified time exemptions apply. This EU law fixes clear objectives but leaves flexibility to EU countries on how to achieve them. Some amendments have been introduced in the Directive since 2000.
The Groundwater Directive sets groundwater quality standards and introduces measures to prevent or limit pollutants in groundwater. It establishes quality criteria, allowing for further improvements to be made based on monitoring data and new scientific knowledge. The directive represents a proportionate and scientifically sound response to the requirements of the WFD as it relates to assessments on chemical status of groundwater and the identification and reversal of significant and sustained upward trends in pollutant concentrations.
Review of Annexes
Annexes II and III of the Groundwater Directive were reviewed in 2013 and the outcome of the review is reflected in the Commission Directive of 20 June 2014. The review process included a call for evidence (to obtain information, studies and scientific reports, among others) and a public consultation process. In addition, a background document for the preparation of the review was produced.
In December 2019, a Fitness Check concluded that water legislation is broadly fit for purpose, with room for improvement related to investments, implementation, integrating water into other policies, chemical pollution, administrative simplification and digitalisation. The key findings show that the directives have led to a higher level of protection for water bodies and flood risk management than could have been expected without them. The objectives of the directives are as relevant now as they were at the time of the adoption, if not more. They contribute to achieving a range of sustainable development goals.
2022 proposal to revise list of groundwater pollutants
In 2022 the Commission adopted a proposal to revise the lists of groundwater pollutants. Two individual and three groups of pollutants are proposed for addition, with quality standards to Annex I to the Groundwater Directive, and one substance to Annex II. The Annex I additions include PFAS - a large group of “forever chemicals” used among others in cookware, clothing and furniture, fire-fighting foam and personal care products; pharmaceuticals as a group, and an anticonvulsant and an antibiotic; and a group of pesticide degradation products.
If the proposal is agreed by the Council and the European Parliament, Member States will be required to take measures to meet the quality standards for these pollutants and to reverse upward trends in concentrations.
Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) Working Group on Groundwater
The CIS for the WFD aims to ensure the Directive’s coherent and harmonious implementation. Within this framework, a technical working group was established to enable Member States and stakeholder groups to work with the Commission on efficient and effective approaches to implementing the WFD and GWD.
Also find out more about Member State competent authorities, including relevant national implementation websites.
Studies and publications
Related laws: Nitrates Directive Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, Directive on industrial emissions, Landfill Directive, Waste Framework Directive Water Framework Directive, Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD)
Related Commission priorities: European Green Deal
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.