The public, agriculture, industry and nature all need non-polluted water. This means that surface water pollution must be minimised. Several EU laws contain provisions to protect surface waters from chemical pollution. The two main components are ecological status and chemical status. Measures must be taken to reduce the emissions, discharges and losses of the priority substances and to phase out those of the most harmful (the priority hazardous substances).
Since 2000, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) has been the main legal instrument for water protection in Europe. Together with the Environmental Quality Standards Directive and the Groundwater Directive, it applies to inland, transitional and coastal surface waters, as well as groundwaters. It ensures an integrated approach to water management, respecting the integrity of entire ecosystems, including by regulating individual pollutants and setting corresponding regulatory standards. According to the Directives, the Commission is under a legal obligation to regularly review these lists of pollutants.
The EU aims to ensure that all surface and groundwater bodies achieve good chemical and good ecological status. Europeans and natural ecosystems should be protected from risks posed by pollutants. To achieve this, standards for priority substances have been established, ensuring that EU countries adhere to the thresholds set out for these substances.
In the EU
Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD)
The provisions outlined in the Water Framework Directive are pivotal. It covers surface water pollutants in two ways. First, identifying and regulating those of greatest concern across the EU (the priority substances listed in Annex X to the Directive). Second, by requiring Member States to identify substances of national or local concern (river basin specific pollutants included by Member States in their River Basin Management Plans).
The assessment of ecological status under the WFD is supported by the Intercalibration Decision.
Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD)
Member States must ensure that the environmental quality standards (EQS) for the priority substances set in the directive are met in order to achieve good chemical status. They must set and meet EQS for the river basin specific pollutants as a component of ecological status.
Surface water watch list
A Watch List mechanism was established to improve the available information on identifying the substances of greatest concern. Member States have to monitor the substances on the list at least once per year for up to four years. The watch list was established in 2015, updated in 2018 and 2020 and again in 2022.
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 priority substances in surface water
In 2022 the Commission adopted a proposal to revise the list of priority substances in surface water. 24 substances are proposed for addition as well as a standard for total pesticides. The proposed substances pose well-documented risks to nature and human health. They include: PFAS - a large group of “forever chemicals” used in cookware, clothing and furniture, fire-fighting foams and personal care products; a range of pesticides; bisphenol A, a plasticiser and a component of plastic packaging; and a number of pharmaceuticals used as painkillers, anti-convulsants or antibiotics.
The Commission has also proposed to update quality standards for a range of substances already on the list, mainly to make standards stricter because of evidence indicating a higher risk than originally identified. Among the substances with stricter standards are some metals and industrial chemicals. Four other existing priority substances are proposed for removal from the list, and another for integration into the new PFAS group, and eight already-regulated “other pollutants” have been re-designated as priority substances, resulting in a total of 73.
If the proposal is agreed by the Council and the European Parliament, Member States will be required to take measures to reduce the emissions of all these pollutants where necessary to meet the quality standards.
Related Commission priorities: European Green Deal
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.