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Current legislative framework

Groundwater in the Water Framework Directive

The components of the Water Framework Directive dealing with groundwater cover a number of different steps for achieving good quantitative and chemical status of groundwater by 2015. They require Member States to:

  • Define groundwater bodies within river basin districts to be designated and reported to the European Commission by Member States. They must classify them by analysing the pressures and impacts of human activity on the quality of groundwater with a view to identifying groundwater bodies presenting a risk of not achieving WFD environmental objectives. Member States were obliged to carry out this classification between 2004 and 2005 and report the results back to the European Commission.
  • Establish registers of protected areas within each river basin districts for those groundwater areas or habitats and species directly dependent on water. The registers must include all bodies of water used for the extraction of drinking water and all protected areas covered under the following directives: the Bathing Water Directive 76/160/EEC, the vulnerable zones under the Nitrates Directive 91/676/EEC and the sensitive areas under the Urban Wastewater Directive 91/271/EEC, as well as areas designated for the protection of habitats and species including relevant Natura 2000 sites designated under Directives 92/43/EEC and 79/409/EEC. Registers shall be reviewed under the River Basin Management Plan updates.
  • Establish groundwater monitoring networks based on the results of the classification analysis so as to provide a comprehensive overview of groundwater chemical and quantitative status. Member States are also obliged to design a monitoring programme that had to be operational by the end of 2006.
  • Set up a river basin management plan (RBMP) for each river basin district which must include a summary of pressures and impacts of human activity on groundwater status, a presentation in map form of monitoring results, a summary of the economic analysis of water use, a summary of protection programmes, control or remediation measures etc. The first RBMPs were published at the end of 2009, links to them can be found in the Commission website. The updated RBMPs were due by the end of 2015 and their review is expected every six years thereafter.
  • Take into account by 2010 the principle of recovery of costs for water services, including environmental and resource costs in accordance with the polluter pays principle.
  • Establish by the end of 2009 a programme of measures for achieving WFD environmental objectives (e.g. abstraction control, prevent or control pollution measures) that would be operational by the end of 2012. Basic measures include, in particular, controls of groundwater extraction, controls (with prior authorization) of artificial recharge or augmentation of groundwater bodies (providing that it does not compromise the achievement of environmental objectives). Point source discharges and diffuse sources liable to cause pollution are also regulated under the basic measures. Direct discharges of pollutants into groundwater are prohibited subject to a range of provisions listed in the Article 11. The programme of measures has to be reviewed and if necessary updated by 2015 and every six years thereafter.

The Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC)

This Directive establishes a regime which sets groundwater quality standards and introduces measures to prevent or limit inputs of pollutants into groundwater. The directive establishes quality criteria that takes account local characteristics and allows for further improvements to be made based on monitoring data and new scientific knowledge. The directive thus represents a proportionate and scientifically sound response to the requirements of the Water Framework Directive (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. Member States should establish standards at the most appropriate level and take into account local or regional conditions.

The Groundwater Directive complements the Water Framework Directive (WFD). It requires:

  • groundwater quality standards to be established by the end of 2008;
  • pollution trend studies to be carried out by using existing data and data which is mandatory by the WFD (referred to as "baseline level" data obtained in 2007-2008);
  • pollution trends to be reversed so that environmental objectives are achieved by 2015 by using the measures set out in the WFD;
  • measures to prevent or limit inputs of pollutants into groundwater to be operational so that WFD environmental objectives can be achieved by 2015;
  • reviews of technical provisions of the directive to be carried out in 2013 and every six years thereafter;
  • compliance with good chemical status criteria (based on EU standards of nitrates and pesticides and on threshold values established by Member States).

The Directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances has provided a groundwater protection framework before the Directive 2006/118/EC. It required to prevent the (direct or indirect) introduction of high priority pollutants into groundwater and to limit the introduction into groundwater of other pollutants so as to avoid pollution of groundwater by these substances. This directive was repealed in 2013.

Annexes I and II of the Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC were reviewed in 2013 and are reflected under the Commission Directive 2014/80/EU 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.  

Other related directives

Pieces of legislation designed to protect groundwater against pollution and deterioration are part of a larger regulatory framework that can be traced back to the 1990s. The concept of groundwater protection is now fully integrated into the basic measures of the Water Framework Directive.

The need to ensure the proper integration of the various legal instruments is illustrated in the figure below:

The different pieces of legislation illustrated in the figure are directly linked to the Water Framework Directive and the Groundwater Directive. They are part of the set of measures that need to be operational to achieve the "good environmental status" objective by the end of 2015. They all seek to prevent or limit pollutants reaching groundwater. Their main features are summarized below:

  • The Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) aims to reduce and prevent water pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. It obliges Member States to designate vulnerable zones of all known areas in Member States whose waters – including groundwater – are or are likely to be affected by nitrate pollution. Vulnerable zones are defined as those waters which contain a nitrates concentration of more than 50 mg/l or are susceptible to contain such nitrates concentration if measures are not taken. The link with groundwater policy is clear in this respect, i.e. nitrate contamination levels should not be over the trigger value set at 50 mg/l. The measures for action of the nitrates directive are also listed in the Water Framework Directive (Annex VI) and the Groundwater Directive (Annex IV, part B).
  • The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC) aims to protect the environment from the adverse effects of discharges of urban waste water and waste water from certain industrial sectors. In this context, the identification of “sensitive areas” relates essentially to freshwater, estuaries or coastal waters which are found to be eutrophic; lakes and streams reaching lakes/reservoirs with poor water exchange; and surface freshwater intended for drinking water which contains more than 50 mg/l nitrates.
  • The Plant Protection Products Directive (91/414/EEC) concerns the authorization, placing on the market, use and control within the European Union of commercial plant protection products. Regarding groundwater, authorization is only granted if plant protection products have no harmful effect on human health or on groundwater and that do not have undesirable effects on the environment, particularly on the contamination of water, including drinking water and groundwater.
  • The Biocides Directive (98/8/EC) deals with the authorization and the placing on the market of biocidal products such as pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Like the Plant Protection Products Directive the authorization of biocidal products may only be granted if the products have no harmful effect on human health, or groundwater and that do not have undesirable effects on the environment, particularly on the contamination of water such as drinking and groundwater.
  • The Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive (96/61/EC) lays down measures designed to prevent or reduce air, water or soil pollution. The directive applies to a significant number of mainly industrial activities with a high pollution potential such as the energy sector, the production and processing of metals, the mineral and chemical industries, waste management facilities, food production and non-industrial activities such as livestock farming. It establishes provisions for issuing permit for existing and new installations. The permits include requirements to ensure the protection of soil and groundwater and set emission limits for pollutants. The Directive on industrial emissions 2010/75/EU (IED) entered into force on 6 January 2011 and was to be transposed into national legislation by Member States by 7 January 2013. The IED replaces the IPPC Directive as of 7 January 2014.
  • The Landfill Directive (99/31/EC) seeks to prevent or reduce the negative effects of landfill waste on the environment, including groundwater. Like the IPPC Directive the directive establishes provisions for issuing permits based on a range of conditions including impact assessment studies. For each site the groundwater, geological, and hydrogeological conditions in the area must be identified. The sites must be designed so as to prevent groundwater from entering landfill waste, collect and treat contaminated water and leachate, and prevent the pollution of soils, groundwater or surface water by using the appropriate technical precautions such as geological barriers and bottom liners. The directive establishes criteria for waste testing and acceptance taking into consideration the protection of the surrounding environment, including groundwater.
  • Other directives have indirect links to the groundwater regulatory framework. These include the Waste Framework Directive (2006/12/EC) which requires waste to be recovered or disposed of without endangering the environment and groundwater; the Construction Product Directive (89/106/EC) provides provisions for regulating construction products that could pose a threat to the health of future occupants or neighbours as a result of pollution or poisoning of water or soil.