Inland freshwater rivers and streams are the arteries of Europe's waterways. However, as they flow to the coast they not only transport nutrients and wildlife, but also chemicals and contaminants. Human activity such as agriculture, industry and wastewater all has an effect on the quality of the ecosystems.
To tackle this problem the EU's Water Framework Directive (WFD), established in 2000, provides EU legislation that promotes the sustainable use of resources and a greener Europe. During the past decade all EU member states were obliged to establish methods to monitor ecological quality of their lakes, rivers and coastal waters.
There has been a coordination effort by the European Commission's in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), and experts from all EU countries are working together, compiling databases and harmonising the WFD environmental objectives across the EU. In 2008, a first set of results was completed, defining a comprehensive set of targets, and a second wave of results is expected to be published this year, completing the work.
Coordinating all 27 EU member states is no mean feat. Hundreds of scientists across the EU have worked together to record and share results of ecosystem analysis. "All the EU countries have to establish methods to quantify the ecological status of their rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Good Ecological Status (GES) means that biological indicators – things like fish, plants and animals that live in the water show healthy conditions. We are making sure GES has the same meaning in all the different countries in Europe," says Wouter van de Bund, coordinator of the project at the JRC.
"Thanks to the coordinated efforts of scientists from all Member States, we have managed to establish methodologies in most EU countries so they can achieve good ecological status and can be comparable across Europe," continues van de Bund.
Several thousand new chemicals enter European water systems each year but knowledge of the long-term environmental effects is far from complete. This triggers a vicious circle: because little is known of their effects, substances are not regulated, and therefore not monitored.
The only way to break out of this circle is to perform investigative monitoring. The European Commission aims to compile a sound database of new substances providing the scientific foundation for new legislative monitoring obligations to be drawn up.
By analysing samples and using innovative predictive tools for modelling pollutants in rivers and coastal zones, scientists are tracking the path pollutants take in river systems.
And what can be measured can also be monitored. Monitoring serves not only to rate the quality of EU water systems, but also to ensure policy is having the desired effect.