EU Water Framework Directive

What is the EU Water Framework Directive?

The EU Water Framework Directive 2000 (WFD) is arguably the most important, far-reaching, water legislation ever to emerge from the EU.  It was transposed into law in EU Member States at the end of 2003.  A primary purpose of the Directive was to update and consolidate the then existing piecemeal EU water legislation: it aimed to establish a new, integrated (ecosystem-based) approach to water protection, improvement and sustainable use.  The WFD includes a strict ‘no deterioration’ objective as well as encouraging Member States to aim to improve the status of the aquatic environment. 

The WFD applies to all water bodies, including rivers, estuaries, coastal waters, and man-made water bodies (e.g. canals, docks).  Its implementation is undertaken in a series of stages.  In preparation for the first river basin planning cycle (2009-2015), new ecological and chemical objectives were set for each water body, with the aim of reaching ‘good status’ by 2015.  However, unlike other EU environmental Directives such as the Birds and Habitats Directives, economics are important in WFD decision-making; if the measures (actions) required to achieve a certain objective are ‘disproportionate costly’ Member States may extend the deadline by which the objective has to be achieved.  A second cycle River Basin Management Plan is to be prepared and published by end 2015.  Whilst there have been some notable improvements in water status during the first planning cycle in most Member States, a great deal of work is still required to reach the Directive’s goals.

Individual Member States have ultimate responsibility for implementing the WFD and meeting its targets.  However, it is a so-called ‘framework’ Directive.  This means that significant efforts are needed to help ensure the consistent interpretation of some of its provisions.  This work is being led by the European Commission through the WFD ‘Common Implementation Strategy’ (CIS) process, a process in which PIANC, CEDA and other European associations such as ESPO (sea ports) and ICOMIA (recreational navigation) are actively participating.  Work to date at EU level has included the preparation of guidance on various aspects of the WFD including the exemptions to the objectives; the development of methodologies (for example to meet the ecological status objectives, the monitoring requirements, and the economic tests set out in the Directive); and the publication of a ‘priority substances’ daughter Directive and associated supporting documents. 

The ‘competent authority’ responsible for ensuring that the WFD objectives are delivered in England is the Environment Agency.  In Scotland this responsibility rests with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency; in Wales, Natural Resources Wales and in Northern Ireland the Department of Environment Northern Ireland. 

What is the WFD Navigation Sector Group?

As a professional international body, PIANC is able to take an informed but neutral view of the WFD and its implications for ports, harbours, commercial and leisure navigation and dredging.  In this capacity, in early 2004, PIANC along with CEDA convened an initial meeting with Government to discuss the possible implications of the WFD for the navigation sector.  Since this time, PIANC has organised and facilitated a regular series of meetings involving a wide range of navigation stakeholders.  These ‘Navigation Sector Group’ meetings provide an important opportunity for professional bodies and trade associations to engage in dialogue, not only with Defra and the Environment Agency, but also – depending on the particular topic under discussion - other interested government departments such as DfT and DTi. 

Navigation Sector Group meetings cover all relevant aspects of WFD implementation, including:

  • the setting of WFD ecological targets
  • hydromorphology including ‘heavily modified’ and ‘artificial’ water bodies
  • the preparation of WFD river basin plans
  • the priority substances daughter Directive
  • development of the UK’s WFD-economic assessment methodologies
  • river basin planning.

Since 2008, the meeting has been extended to cover the implications for navigation of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), a similar framework Directive that applies to the marine environment but overlaps with the WFD in coastal waters.  The MSFD aims to achieve good environmental status across a range of eleven descriptors, of which the most relevant to navigation are:

  • biodiversity
  • non-indigenous species
  • sea floor integrity
  • hydrographical conditions
  • contaminants
  • marine litter
  • underwater noise.

The MSFD is not intended to duplicate WFD requirements in water bodies already covered by the latter; however, new targets with regard to marine litter and underwater noise will be introduced in coastal water bodies as these parameters are not already covered by the WFD.

Further information

Further information on the WFD, including details about the PIANC-led EU level WFD Navigation Task Group can be obtained from the PIANC website www.pianc.org/euwfd.php.


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© 2006 International Navigationssociation (PIANC) UK Section