EU legislation on water quality

Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPCC)

Nitrates Directive

Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

Shellfish Waters Directive

Dangerous Substances Directive

Bathing Waters Directive

Water Framework Directive

Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPCC)

This Directive was adopted by the Council of Ministers in 1996 and has been introduced as a harmonisation measure in response to the existence of several national integrated pollution management systems (such systems operate in the UK, Belgium, Denmark, France and the Netherlands). The Directive has been strongly influenced by the UK IPC system, not least as it is the most recent and comprehensive system of integrated pollution management. Whilst IPC appears to be at least as comprehensive as IPPC, there are a number of elements of IPPC that may lead to the extension of IPC in the UK. These are listed below.

  • Prescribed Processes and Substances
  • Authorisations
  • Best Available Techniques (BAT)
  • Implementation Timetable


In Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), will be the regulator for all installations.

Nitrates Directive

In 1991, the Council of Ministers adopted a Directive on the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (the Nitrates Directive).

The Directive aims to protect fresh, coastal and marine waters against pollution caused by nitrates from diffuse sources. It requires member states to identify waters, either actually or potentially affected by nitrate pollution. These are to include:

  • surface waters, particularly those for the abstraction of drinking water, where nitrate concentrations exceed 50 mg/l nitrate;
  • groundwaters actually or potentially containing more than 50 mg/l nitrate;
  • freshwater lakes, other freshwater bodies, estuaries, coastal waters and marine waters which are, or may in the future be, eutrophic.

Member states had to designate all areas draining into such waters as vulnerable zones by 19 December 1993 and establish Action Programmes to control the timing and rate of application of manure and chemical fertilisers in these zones.

The provisions of the Nitrates Directive for the identification of vulnerable zones were transcribed into UK legislation primarily under the provisions of the Water Resources Act 1991 and subsequent Regulations. 68 Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (see Map 2) were identified in England and Wales under the Protection of Water Against Agricultural Nitrate Pollution Regulations 1996 and one, at Balmalcolm in Fife, under similar regulations in Scotland. Three Nitrate Vulnerable Zones have been designated in Northern Ireland.

The provisions for Action Programmes were implemented in UK legislation under the Action Programme for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones Regulations 1998 which came into force on 19 December 1998. These Regulations, which aim to reduce the leaching of nitrate from farmland into ground and surface waters, require farmers in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones to control the timing and rate of applications of nitrogen fertilisers and manures used on their land and to keep supporting records.

Map - Nitrate vulnerable zones in England and Wales

The European Commission is currently pursuing legal action against the UK for non-compliance of the Nitrates Directive. The UK has limited the application of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones to drinking water sources, whereas the Directive states that the criteria should be applied to all surface and ground waters. In order to address this shortcoming in the application of the Directive, the UK has extended monitoring to investigate such waters but this will not be completed until 2000 (several years after the Directive=s deadline). Furthermore, no action plans have been established for the Nitrate Vulnerable Zones in Northern Ireland.

Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive

On 18 March 1991, EU Environment Ministers adopted the Urban (formerly Municipal) Waste Water Treatment Directive. The provisions of the Directive have been transcribed into UK legislation by the Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulations 1994 in England, Wales and Scotland. DETR and the Welsh Office issued a guidance note (DETR 1997) providing agreed interpretation of the Regulations between the Environment Agency and the Water Service plcs (the largest group of dischargers).

The main aim of the Directive is to ensure that all signficant discharges of sewage are treated before they are discharged, either to inland surface waters, groundwaters, estuaries or coastal waters. Significant discharges are defined, for the purposes of the Directive, as those to fresh waters or to estuaries serving agglomerations with population equivalents (commonly abbreviated to Ape@) of more than 2,000 or those to coastal waters serving agglomerations with population equivalents of more than 10,000 (1 pe = the organic biodegradable load having a five day biological oxygen demand (BOD5) of 60 g per day). Sewage will normally be treated to secondary treatment standards (see Box 1, page 50) (normally a biological process). Discharges into areas identified as >sensitive= because of the risk of eutrophication will require more stringent treatment which will usually include the removal of nitrogen in coastal waters and phosphorus in freshwaters. The timetable for the implementation of these improvements in estuarine and coastal waters is as follows:

  • secondary treatment for discharges above 15,000 pe must be provided by 31 December 2000;
  • discharges between 2,000 and 15,000 pe in estuaries and between 10,000 and 15,000 pe in coastal waters must receive secondary treatment by 2005;
  • smaller discharges must receive appropriate treatment by 2005.

The Directive and the UK Regulations allowed for the designation of High Natural Dispersion Areas (HNDAs) in coastal waters. In these areas, only primary treatment of sewage is required. 85 HNDAs have been identified in the UK: 58 in England and Wales, 24 in Scotland and 3 in Northern Ireland. However, the Government has recently decided to withdraw all HNDAs which will require all discharges covered by UWWT Regulations to undergo secondary treatment as a minimum. Any discharges affected by this change of policy may be allowed longer to comply with the secondary treatment requirements.

Five estuarine eutrophic >sensitive= areas have been identified in the UK and these are all in England and Wales: Chichester Harbour, Langstone Harbour, Truro, Tresillian and Fal estuaries, Taw estuary and Tawe estuary. Where >sensitive area= designations coincide with European marine sites, the implications for the features of interest should be considered. Designations are to be reviewed in 2001. In Northern Ireland, Inner Belfast Lough is to be designated as a eutrophic >sensitive= area.

All qualifying discharges under the Directive have specific conditions written into the discharge consents specifying the appropriate level of treatment.

The Directive also requires member states to take action to limit pollution from storm water overflows. This requires measures to be undertaken to improve unsatisfactory intermittent discharges, although no specific requirements are imposed, nor is a timetable set.

The Directive also requires appropriate treatment to be provided from smaller agglomerations and effluents from industrial processes with characteristics similar to sewage. The Directive also required the ending of disposal of sewage sludge at sea on 31 December 1998.

Shellfish Waters Directive

The Shellfish Water Directive (adopted in 1979) outlines the requirements for the quality of designated waters which support shellfish (defined as bivalve and gastropod molluscs) and aims to protect these shellfish populations from the harmful consequences resulting from the discharge of polluting substances into the sea. This Directive has been transcribed into UK legislation under the Surface Waters (Shellfish) (Classification) Regulations 1997 and The Surface Waters (Shellfish) Directions 1997.

In July 1999, DETR announced the designation of 76 new shellfish waters and the extension of the existing 17 designations. The total number of protected areas in England is now 93 (see Map 3). There is one designated shellfish area in Wales (although more are expected to be designated by the National Assembly for Wales in the near future - CEFAS, Weymouth pers. comm.), 11 in Scotland and 1 in Northern Ireland.

There are also plans to increase the number of designated waters in Northern Ireland. The competent authority for the implementation of this Directive is the Environment Agency in England and Wales, SEPA in Scotland and the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland.

The Directive lays down Imperative (I) values for certain parameters (see Section 5) of water quality which must be attained in designated waters. It also sets Guideline (G) values (Section 5) which member states must >endeavour to observe= in establishing programmes for improvement of designated waters. The Regulations set mandatory minimum standards equal to the I values in the Directive. In practice, it is intended that local operational standards will be set (after 2001) which are at least as stringent as the I values but take into account current water quality such that no deterioration is allowed. No deterioration in this context means that water quality currently better than the proposed I values will not be allowed to deteriorate, regardless of the I values.

Shellfish waters are monitored throughout the year ranging from monthly, quarterly, six-monthly to annually, depending on the relevant parameter. The parameters measured include physico-chemical determinands and a range of toxic organic and metal contaminants. Where shellfish waters are located within or close to European marine sites, the results of monitoring of shellfish waters provide an indication of the concentration of some key physico-chemical determinands and a range of toxic contaminants in the water column and the degree of compliance with standards designed to protect shellfish.

Map - Designated shellfish waters in England and Wales

Map - Designated shellfish waters in Scotland

The related Directive laying down the health conditions for the production and the placing on the market of live bivalve molluscs (Shellfish Hygiene Directive) is aimed at ensuring shellfish are fit for human consumption and involves monitoring for faecal bacteria contamination. The Directive does not impose any obligation to achieve or maintain a particular standard, but classifies shellfish harvesting areas according to the level of faecal bacteria present in the shellfish. MAFF, SERAD in Scotland and Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland (DANI) in Northern Ireland are the competent authorities for the implementation of this Directive.

Dangerous Substances Directive

In 1976, the EU Council of Ministers adopted the Dangerous Substances Directive to control pollution caused by certain dangerous substances discharged to the aquatic environment. The Directive established two lists of compounds:

  1. List I dealing with substances regarded as being particularly dangerous because of their toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation. Pollution by List I substances must be eliminated; and
  2. List II containing substances which are less dangerous but which nevertheless have a deleterious effect on the aquatic environment. Pollution by List II substances must be reduced.

For List I substances, the Directive stipulates two approaches for control: uniform emission standards (UESs) (also known as limit values) and environmental quality standards (EQSs). Both types of standard are set on a Community level but member states are given discretion to select which approach to adopt. Most EU member states prefer the UESs, whereas the UK has adopted the EQS approach. For List II substances, member states are required to set environmental quality standards (EQSs) developed on a national level.

EQSs for List I substances have been established in a series of >daughter= Directives (Table 2.3).

EQSs for List II substances have been derived in the UK and implemented by the Surface Waters (Dangerous Substances)(Classification) Regulations 1997 and 1998.

In 1980, the EU adopted the Groundwater Directive (Protection of Groundwater Against Pollution Caused by Certain Dangerous Substances - 80/68/EEC). The substances to be controlled fall into two lists:

  1. List 1 substances are the most toxic and must be prevented from entering groundwater. They include pesticides, sheep dip, solvents, hydrocarbons, mercury, cadmium and cyanide.
  2. List 2 substances are less dangerous but, if disposed of in large amounts, could be harmful to groundwater. They include some heavy metals and ammonia (which is present in sewage effluent), phosphorous and its compounds. Entry of these substances into groundwater must be restricted to prevent pollution.

Control is also required where water is recharged to ground for later drinking water use.

On 1 January 1999, Regulations completing the implementation of the 1980 Directive were introduced (EA has responsibility for the Groundwater Regulations in England and Wales with SEPA exercising similar responsibilities in Scotland). From the above date, anyone who disposes of listed substances (including materials which contain these substances) onto or into land should apply for an authorisation if they want to continue with that disposal. An application made before 1 April 1999 will be deemed granted until fully determined by the EA. Where applications are made on or after 1 April 1999, these will need to be considered by the Agency and a formal authorisation issued before any disposal can be made. Where disposal is acceptable, the EA will authorise this with appropriate conditions. In some cases, it will be necessary to refuse the application because of the risks to groundwater. This advice on authorisations under the Regulations is subject to finalisation of DETR guidance on interpretation of the Regulations. The reader should contact Sarah Peaty (EA, 0191 203 4000) for further information.

Table - Dangerous substances 'daughter' directives for List I substances

The requirement to comply with EQSs in controlled waters governs the conditions on discharge consents containing List I substances. The Environment Agency undertakes monitoring of controlled waters around discharges known to contain these substances in order to demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the Directive. An annual summary of this information is submitted to DETR.

Bathing Waters Directive

This Directive covers the quality of bathing waters for protecting human health and for reasons of amenity and seeks to ensure that quality is raised over time largely by ensuring sewage is not present or has been adequately diluted or destroyed. Bathing waters are defined as "fresh or sea water in which bathing is explicitly authorised or is not prohibited and is traditionally practised by a large number of bathers." A total of 448 coastal and estuarine sites have been designated as bathing waters in England and Wales, 23 in Scotland and 16 in Northern Ireland. The Scottish Executive is expected to designate further bathing waters in Scotland before the start of the 1999 bathing season (SEPA 1998). SEPA monitored an additional 93 coastal and inland and as yet undesignated bathing waters in 1998 (SEPA 1998).

The Directive lists 10 parameters: total coliforms, faecal coliforms, salmonella, enteroviruses, pH, colour, mineral oils, surface-active substances reacting with methylene blue (essentially detergents), phenols and water clarity for which there are mandatory standards for all member states. The Directive also gives guideline values for some of the parameters, including the two coliform groups and faecal streptococci, which are stricter than the mandatory values and which member states should endeavour to observe. The mandatory requirements of this Directive were transcribed into UK legislation under the provisions of the Water Resources Act 1991 (Section 2.2.1) by the Bathing Waters (Classification) Regulations.

The UK Government bases compliance with the Directive=s mandatory standards on the counts of total coliforms and faecal coliforms (both parameters must comply to achieve a pass) and with guideline values on the counts of total coliforms, faecal coliforms and faecal streptococci (all three parameters must comply to achieve a pass). The competent authority for the implementation of this Directive is the Environment Agency in England and Wales, SEPA in Scotland and the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland.

Bathing waters are monitored regularly during the bathing season (15 May to 30 September in England and Wales and 1 June to mid-September in Scotland and Northern Ireland) for a range of microbiological and physico-chemical parameters. Where bathing waters are located within or close to European marine sites (see JNCC Coastal Directory Series for locations of designated bathing waters), the monitoring of bathing waters provides an indication of the degree of pollution (principally from sewage). However, sampling is limited to the bathing season only and is located on the designated bathing beach regardless of the position of outfalls. The results of bathing water monitoring are published annually by the Environment Agency in England and Wales (see Environment Agency website at, SEPA in Scotland (SEPA 1998 and SEPA website at and the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland.

The requirement to achieve compliance with mandatory standards is one of the major pressures leading to significant improvements in Secondary Treatment Works (STW) discharges in the vicinity of designated bathing waters. SEPA adopted a new policy in 1998 on microbiological standards in marine waters which aims to ensure that all new or modified discharges are designed to achieve compliance with guideline values of the Directive at identified bathing waters in Scotland.

Water Framework Directive

The European Commission adopted a proposal for a Water Policy Framework Directive (WFD) on 26 February 1997. The overall aim of the Directive is to establish a framework for the protection and management of surface waters, including estuaries, coastal waters and groundwaters in the EU. The main objectives of the proposed Directive are to:

  • prevent further deterioration and to protect and enhance the aquatic environment;
  • achieve >good= water quality for all surface waters and groundwaters unless it is impossible or prohibitively expensive;
  • promote sustainable water management based on long-term protection of water resources.

These objectives are to be achieved by managing the water environment on the basis of river basins by applying the combined approach of limit values (LV) and environmental quality standards (EQSs) to the control of discharges and by controlling water abstractions from both surface and groundwaters. The Directive will effectively provide the legal basis for the management of Community waters. Whereas previously adopted water-related Directives addressed individual issues (e.g. the control of sewage effluents), the WFD aims to provide an overall framework for the management of water, both in terms of quality and quantity, thus enabling an integrated approach to be taken to achieve the objective of sustainable water management. It aims to balance the needs of water uses within a catchment, using command and control measures, planning and economic instruments.

The Directive will, therefore, have a fundamental impact on existing and proposed legislation. It is likely to incorporate the requirements of current use-related or quality-objective Directives (e.g. the Freshwater Fish, Shellfish, Groundwater, Surface Water, and also the proposed Ecological Directive) and the quality standards laid down in the Dangerous Substances Directive. However, the Urban Waste Water Treatment (UWWT), Nitrates, Bathing Water and the IPPC Directives will remain in force. The proposed Directive will also provide the framework for the integration into water policy of the measures required under other Community legislation, such as the Pesticides, Habitats, Birds (conservation) and Seveso Directives. Many of the Directives will provide some of the measures required to implement the WFD (e.g. to control pollution from certain activities).

Some of the key times for implementation of parts of the proposed Directive are:

10 years to develop river basin management plans by a river basin authority (likely to be EA/SEPA) (coastal waters will be assigned to the river basin district). These management plans must register all Protected Areas (which includes European marine sites) in the river basin district.

A further 6 years to achieve improvements to "good" status with a possible extension for a further 18 years.

"Good surface water status" means the status achieved by a surface water body when both its ecological and chemical status are at least "good".

"Good ecological status" means the ecological status achieved by a body of water which is demonstrated to be significantly influenced by human activity, but which nevertheless has a rich, balanced and sustainable ecosystem.

"Good chemical status" means the chemical status achieved by a body of water in which concentrations of the substances from Annex VIII of the Directive do not exceed the environmental quality standards established in Annex X of the Directive and other relevant Community legislation setting environmental quality standards and in which the trends in the monitoring data do not suggest that such environmental quality standards will be exceeded in the future.

Surface waters are intended to include 'transitional waters' (a general term adopted for estuaries, coastal lagoons etc) and coastal waters out to a limit of 1 nautical mile.

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