European Commission adopts new groundwater pollution proposal

The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a new directive to protect groundwater from pollution.

Sept. 24, 2003 -- The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a new directive to protect groundwater from pollution.

The proposed directive will decisively improve the quality of Europe's groundwater. It introduces monitoring requirements and quality objectives, obliging Member States to monitor and assess groundwater quality and to identify and reverse trends in groundwater pollution.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said: "Water is a divine gift, but much abused. We depend on groundwater, and we must safeguard it. At the moment, we do not even have enough data about the quality of this vitally important resource in Europe. The proposed directive will help us find out more and make sure that our groundwater is not being polluted."

Objectives of the proposed measures

With this proposal, the Commission has fulfilled an obligation under the Water Framework Directive, which aims to ensure good status of all waters in the EU. The directive requires the Commission to propose specific measures to prevent and control groundwater pollution and achieve good groundwater chemical status. These measures have to include criteria for assessing the chemical status of groundwater and for identifying trends in pollution of groundwater bodies. The present proposal in addition introduces measures for protecting groundwater from indirect pollution (discharges of pollutants into groundwater after percolation through the ground or subsoil).

Good chemical status for groundwater bodies

In the proposal, compliance with good chemical status is based on a comparison of monitoring data with quality standards existing in EU legislation on nitrates, plant protection and biocidal products, which set threshold values, i.e. maximum permissible concentrations, in groundwater for a number of pollutants. With regard to pollutants that are not covered by EU legislation, the proposed directive requires Member States to establish threshold values by June 2006. These threshold values have to be defined at the national, river basin or groundwater body levels, thus taking into account the great diversity of groundwater characteristics across the EU.

Identification and reversal of pollution trends

The proposal sets out specific criteria for the identification of significant and sustained upward trends in pollutant concentrations, and for the definition of starting points for when action must be taken to reverse these trends. In this respect, significance is defined both on the basis of "time series" and "environmental significance." Time series are periods of time during which a trend is detected through regular monitoring, and "environmental significance" describes the point at which the concentration of a pollutant starts to threaten to worsen the quality of groundwater. It is set at 75% of the quality standard or the threshold value defined by Member States.

The "prevent or limit pollution" clause

In order to maintain control over indirect discharges of hazardous substances, the Commission's proposal makes provisions that will prohibit or limit such discharges. It includes quality objectives, so that the effects of the discharges can be monitored and future risks can be assessed.

A flexible and iterative approach

The proposed directive will ensure that ground water quality is monitored and evaluated across Europe in a harmonised way. The proposed approach to establishing quality criteria is both flexible and iterative, taking account of local characteristics and allowing for further improvements. It represents a proportionate and scientifically sound response to the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.

In 2012, a comprehensive programme of measures to prevent or limit pollution of water, including groundwater, will become operational under the Water Framework Directive. Monitoring results obtained through the application of the proposed directive on groundwater will be used to design the measures to prevent or limit pollution of groundwater.


Groundwater: a resource at risk

Groundwater acts as a reservoir from which good quality water can be abstracted for drinking and for use in industry and agriculture. It is also important for maintaining wetlands and river flows, acting as a buffer through dry periods. In addition, groundwater provides base flow to surface water systems, feeding surface water systems all through the year. Thus groundwater quality has a direct impact on the quality of those surface waters as well as that of associated aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

There is much more groundwater than surface water: it accounts for more than 97% of freshwater resources available on earth (excluding glaciers and ice caps, with the remaining 3% consisting of lakes, rivers and wetlands). However, it is often difficult to access, which makes it hard to restore water quality. Even once a source of pollution has been removed, it can be difficult to clean up groundwater.

As groundwater moves slowly through the ground, the impact of human activities can last for a relatively long time. For these reasons, it is necessary to focus on preventing pollution in the first place.

Existing EU groundwater policy, that is directive 80/68/EEC on the protection of groundwater against pollution caused by certain dangerous substances, has been aimed at protecting groundwater from direct and indirect discharges of a number of pollutants. But this directive does not set any clear quality objectives nor does it require comprehensive monitoring. As a result, there is not much data available about the quality of groundwater in Europe. The proposed directive will change this situation.

Further information about EU water policy can be found at:

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