Nav: Home

New standards for better water quality in Europe

February 27, 2017

The European Water Framework Directive has been in force since 2000. Its purpose is to ensure that rivers, lakes, coastal waters and groundwater achieve a 'good status' by 2027. This means that bodies of water should contain only minimal pollutants and should provide a near-natural habitat for plants and animals. Crucially, the European Water Framework Directive looks at bodies of water without regard to international borders -- in the case of rivers, from source to estuary. "This is globally unique in this form. It's the reason why many countries regard the European Water Framework Directive as an ideal model," says environmental chemist Dr. Werner Brack from the UFZ.

However, Europe still has a long way to go to achieve its goal. In many places there is a need to implement concrete measures to improve the water body structure, restore the continuity of surface water and reduce contamination with nutrients and pollutants with much more consistency than has been the case so far. "But the directive itself also has shortcomings, which is why it needs to be revised by 2019," says Werner Brack. Under his leadership, scientists from the European research project SOLUTIONS and the European research network NORMAN have carefully examined these shortcomings and come up with recommendations for improved pollutant monitoring and water management.

Improving monitoring

The Water Framework Directive currently lists 45 pollutants referred to as priority substances. To have good water quality, a body of water is only allowed to contain small amounts of these substances. However, there are also more than 100 000 different chemical substances which we use every day and which end up in our environment and our water. So, most of these are not included in the assessment of water quality under the current EU Water Framework Directive. "Monitoring based on individual substances is expensive, ignores the majority of substances and fails to address the actual problems. Most of the priority substances were already removed from the market and replaced with other chemical substances with often very similar effects. Adding new substances to the list is a cumbersome political process," says Brack. Furthermore, the Water Framework Directive has so far been limited to the testing of individual substances. However, pollutants don't affect the environment individually, but exhibit higher toxicity together than the single compounds do individually.. "It's not the presence of a polluting substance that's crucial but its effect in a body of water," explains Brack. The researchers therefore recommend that, where possible, the monitoring of water quality should be switched from the chemical analysis of individual substances to effect-based methods such as biological effect tests. This would mean that all substances with the same effect would be recorded, including mixed substances. Expensive chemical analysis would only be necessary where certain effect thresholds were exceeded.

Improving assessment

The team of researchers also sees a need to change the way water quality is assessed. According to the Water Framework Directive it is always the worst component that determines whether a body of water is classified as having a good chemical or ecological status -- even when this component is impossible to influence through water management measures, as is the case with pollutants from incineration processes. This appears very protective but has the result that many bodies of water cannot achieve management targets even if significant improvements are made to key components. Brack notes: "The current rules provide too few incentives to solve problems and in many cases result in inaction. We are therefore proposing that measures to improve water quality should be rewarded through a more sophisticated system of assessment." This includes the creation of incentives for good monitoring. Currently, many member states fail to regularly measure and analyse pollutants which should in fact be monitored by law. And they are actually rewarded for this because the less they measure, the less often they measure and the poorer the analysis, the lower the identified risk and thus the need for reduction measures. For the new Water Framework Directive, the researchers are therefore proposing a reversed burden of proof. In areas where no data is collected due to inadequate monitoring, model values could be used for water body assessment. Countries which failed to supply data on time would then have to prove with measurements that the actual status was better than predicted levels.

Improving management

Simply measuring and assessing water quality is however not enough to improve the status of a body of water - monitoring must be followed up with appropriate measures. "In our recent study, we provide recommendations for a more solution-focused approach to water management in which monitoring, assessment and potential measures should be much more closely linked from the outset than is currently the case," says Brack.

For example, sewage treatment processes are an important and relatively predictable source of pollution in streams and rivers which can cause effect thresholds to be exceeded. The authors suggest that, as a first step, it should be established to what extent the measured polluting effect of river water correlates with expectations based on the proportion of sewage and degree of cleaning. Improved wastewater treatment in the sewage plant would then be the best means of achieving quality targets. If the observed polluting effect is higher than expected, the authors recommend various approaches to identify specific pollutants and their sources and if possible eliminate them before they reach the sewage plant. The emphasis should be on examining possible alternatives for quality improvement rather than persisting with the definition of water body status. "This also helps us to find solutions that address several problems at once," says Brack. "For example, sufficiently wide marginal areas planted with bushes not only contribute to reducing the ingress of pesticides in bodies of water, but also help to prevent over-fertilisation and raised temperatures in the water. On top of that, they also provide a valuable habitat for many animals and plants."

As studies in the EU project SOLUTIONS have shown, the improvement of water quality in some cases also requires the harmonisation of the many environmental quality and chemical safety regulations at European and national level with the Water Framework Directive.

The researchers hope that the results from SOLUTIONS and NORMAN will help to provide additional approaches for the revision of the European Water Framework Directive - and therefore pave the way to more sustainable water usage in Europe.
-end-
The EU project SOLUTIONS brings together 39 partners from 17 countries worldwide. It is receiving €12 million in funding from the European Union until 2018. Its aim is to develop tools and models to assess the risk of the cocktail of chemicals in European water bodies. SOLUTIONS develops methods to detect substances requiring priority treatment and proposes solutions for their reduction.

The European research network NORMAN promotes cooperation and information-sharing among teams of researchers in various countries in relation to the monitoring of previously unregulated substances in the environment.

Further information:

EU project SOLUTIONS: http://www.solutions-project.eu

SOLUTIONS video: http://www.youtube.com/UFZde

NORMAN research network: http://www.norman-network.net/

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ

Related Water Quality Articles:

Lessening water quality problems caused by hurricane-related flooding
June 1 is the start of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and with 2020 predicted to be particularly active, residents in coastal regions are keeping watchful eyes on the weather.
Control of anthropogenic atmospheric emissions can improve water quality in seas
A new HKU research highlighted the importance of reducing fossil fuel combustion not only to curb the trend of global warming, but also to improve the quality of China's coastal waters.
Pharma's potential impact on water quality
When people take medications, these drugs and their metabolites can be excreted and make their way to wastewater treatment plants.
Study: Your home's water quality could vary by the room -- and the season
A study has found that the water quality of a home can differ in each room and change between seasons, challenging the assumption that the water in a public water system is the same as the water that passes through a building's plumbing at any time of the year.
Researchers create new tools to monitor water quality, measure water insecurity
A wife-husband team will present both high-tech and low-tech solutions for improving water security at this year's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Seattle on Sunday, Feb.
How anti-sprawl policies may be harming water quality
Urban growth boundaries are created by governments in an effort to concentrate urban development -- buildings, roads and the utilities that support them -- within a defined area.
China's inland surface water quality significantly improves
A new study shows that China's inland surface water quality improved significantly from 2003-2017, coinciding with major efforts beginning in 2001 to reduce water pollution in the country.
Studying water quality with satellites and public data
The researchers built a novel dataset of more than 600,000 matchups between water quality field measurements and Landsat imagery, creating a 'symphony of data.'
How to improve water quality in Europe
Toxic substances from agriculture, industry and households endanger water quality in Europe -- and by extension, ecosystems and human health.
Revolutionizing water quality monitoring for our rivers and reef
New, lower-cost help may soon be on the way to help manage one of the biggest threats facing the Great Barrier Reef.
More Water Quality News and Water Quality Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.