The EU regulatory groundwater framework was developed at the end of the 1970's with the adoption of the Directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances. This directive provided a groundwater protection framework by preventing the (direct or indirect) introduction of high priority pollutants into groundwater and limiting the introduction into groundwater of other pollutants so as to avoid pollution of groundwater by these substances. This directive was repealed in 2013.
In 1982, the Directorate-General for the Environment, Consumer Protection and Nuclear Safety of the European Community carried out a major assessment of groundwater resources within its (then) nine Member States. It consisted of a general survey (Groundwater Resources of the European Community: synthetical report) and individual reports from each Member State. This assessment was concerned mainly with groundwater quantity. Since it was published, attention turned in Europe (and the United States) to quality, and not only were groundwater quality monitoring programmes greatly expanded but many groundwater protection schemes were put into place.
The declaration of the Ministerial Seminar on groundwater held at the Hague in 1991 recognised the need for further action to avoid long term deterioration of the quality and quantity of freshwater resources and called for a programme of actions to be implemented by the year 2000, aiming at sustainable management and protection of freshwater resources. Requests made by the Council in 1992 and 1995 in the form of resolutions recommended an action programme and a revision of the 80/68/EEC Directive to be undertaken. This was followed-up by the presentation by the Commission of a proposal for a Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council on an action programme for Integrated Protection and Management of Groundwater which was adopted on 25 November 1996 and in which the Commission pointed to the need to establish procedures for the regulation of abstraction of freshwater and for the monitoring of freshwater quality and quantity.
These considerations coincided with the request made by the European institutions to the Commission to come forward with a proposal for a Directive establishing a framework for a European water policy. Groundwater considerations were hence naturally embedded into the development of this large policy framework development, which resulted in the adoption of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) 2000/60/EC on 23 October 2000.
Until the WFD adoption, focus on groundwater mainly concerned its use as drinking water (e.g. about 75% of EU inhabitants depend on groundwater for their water supply). Groundwater is also an important resource for industry (e.g. cooling waters) and agriculture (irrigation). It has, however, become increasingly obvious that groundwater should not only be viewed as a drinking water reservoir, but also protected for its environmental value. In this context, the Water Framework Directive put forward a challenging legislative framework, 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 modern piece of EU legislation fixes clear objectives but leaves flexibility to Member States on means to achieve them. It is based on milestones such as risk evaluation of anthropogenic pressures and impacts, monitoring programmes, development of River Basin Management Plans (the third ones to be published in 2021) and design and operation of programmes of measures. Groundwater is one of the key components of the WFD which focuses on quantitative and chemical status objectives (while the objectives for surface waters concern ecological and chemical status).
While the quantitative status objectives are clear in the WFD, aiming at ensuring a balance between abstraction and recharge of groundwater, chemical status criteria were more complex to be defined at the time of the adoption of the WFD. It was therefore decided to request the Commission to come forward with a proposal for a "daughter" directive clarifying good chemical status criteria and specifications related to the identification and reversal of pollution trends.
On 19 September 2003 the European Commission adopted a proposal for a new directive to protect groundwater from pollution. Based on an EU-wide approach the proposed directive introduced for the first time quality objectives which oblige Member States to monitor and assess groundwater quality on the basis of common criteria and identify and reverse trends in groundwater pollution.
By adopting the proposal the Commission fulfilled an obligation under Article 17 of the Water Framework Directive which requires it to establish technical specifications to complement the overall groundwater regulatory regime in place. These specifications cover a number of key elements, among which characterization, analyses of pressures and impacts, monitoring, and programme of measures. All of these elements are linked to the development and implementation of River Basin Management Plans whose aim is to achieve "good environmental status" by 2015, or by 2027 at the latest. The Water Framework Directive specifically called for a daughter directive to set out detailed provisions on chemical status and other measures to identify and reverse pollution trends.
The Proposal was adopted by the Commission on 19 September 2003. This was followed up by opinion papers issued by the Committee of the Regions on 12 December 2003, and by the European Economic and Social Committee and Committee of the Regions on 4 March 2004.
Owing to European Parliament elections, the first reading could not be completed in 2004, and the debate had to start again under the new EP (2004-2009) with a new Rapporteur, Mrs. Krista Klass, who managed to have the first reading adopted on 28 April 2005. A political agreement was then reached at Council in June 2005, followed up by the adoption of a Common Position by qualified majority on 23 January 2006, which the Commission commented in a communication adopted on 10 February 2006.
The second reading was adopted by the European Parliament on 13 June 2006, and the Commission issued its opinion on the report on 1 August 2006. The Council response to the second reading was adopted on 29 September 2006, which opened the way to conciliation as some amendments could not be accepted by Council.
Following a long negotiation among the European Parliament and the Council, an agreement was reached in conciliation on 17 October 2006. Key issues in the negotiation concerned the question of the non-deterioration of groundwater quality and the relationship with Community legislation on water pollution by nitrates. The conciliation enabled to reach a compromise which establishes clear requirements to prevent any deterioration of groundwater status, and sets the Nitrates standards of 50 mg/l as good chemical status objective, while keeping the 91/676/EEC directive unchanged.
The Groundwater Directive was formally adopted on 12 December 2006. It complements the Water Framework Directive setting up environmental objectives of good groundwater quantitative and chemical status, as well as ensuring a continuity to the Directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by dangerous substances, repealed by the end of 2013.
Based on the results of the Review of Annex I and II of the Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC (GWD) and in the light of scientific and technical progress, in 2014 the Commission proposed a Commission Directive amending Annex II of the Groundwater Directive.
Article 10 of the Directive 2006/118/EC on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration (GWD) requires the Commission to review Annex I and II of the Directive every six years and come forward with legislative proposals, if appropriate. The Commission carried out the first review of those Annexes in 2013.
Annexes I and II of the GWD contain Europe wide environmental quality standards for pollutants, a minimum list of pollutants and indicators for which Member States should consider establishing threshold values, guidelines for the establishment of threshold values and information to be provided by Member States on those pollutants and indicators.
The first step of the review was a call for evidence in April 2013 where the European Commission asked interested stakeholders to submit information, studies, scientific reports, good practice or other data sources in order to underpin the impact assessment for the review of Annexes I and II of the Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC.
Following the call for evidence, a public consultation was organized between 30 July 2013 and 22 October 2013 with the aim of collecting opinions on different policy options presented, and to identify missing options and gather data on impacts.
A stakeholder conference was also organised on 9 October 2013 in Brussels to present and discuss preliminary conclusions on the impacts of the options and the remaining knowledge gaps.
The impact assessment report is available here. It contains summary reports on the public consultation, and stakeholder conference.
As a result of the Review and in the light of scientific and technical progress, it was considered appropriate to propose only technical adaptations of Annex II to the GWD in accordance with Article 8 of the GWD (regulatory procedure with scrutiny). An explanatory note to the proposal can be requested here.
Following the EU Water legislation fitness check and its follow-up, the Commission is currently working on a new review of the GWD Annexes.