EU Proposals for water are not yet crystal clear

After decades of inefficiency, European waters are still not healthy. The revision of EU water laws is an opportunity to set up the next decades of work to turn this diagnosis around. Decisionmakers should strengthen the current proposals to ensure clean waters in Europe. 

More than 20 years on from the adoption of the EU water law, Europe’s waters are still not in good health.    

Rivers, lakes, coastal, marine and groundwaters are exposed to a mix of chemicals coming from agriculture, urban wastewater and industry. EU pollution limits to protect biodiversity have been exceeded significantly.  

On 26 October, the Commission published its plan to tackle air and water pollution including proposals for an overhaul of the 30-year-old rules for urban wastewater and updated lists of priority substances for water.  

Positive strides have the potential to address the impact of pollution on the environment and human health, but key aspects that would ensure clean waters in Europe have so far been left unaddressed. 

Raise a glass, but no cocktails 

The lists of substances to be controlled in European waters establish water pollution standards for new and crucial substances, including ‘forever chemicals’ (PFAS), pharmaceuticals and several pesticides. The rules have also been revised for some of the already listed pollutants, although four substances were delisted. Member States must check the presence of the full list of pollutants and make sure the quality standards are observed. In particular, this can become the first time there are EU-wide quality standards for the presence of pharmaceuticals in water.  

There is also a significant move towards providing up-to-date information on the status and progress of Europe’s waters. Member States would report monitoring data and status assessments yearly – instead of every six years under the current EU water law. The mechanism to determine if substances are of EU-wide concern has been made mandatory for groundwater, in line with already existing requirements for surface water.  

However, the risk of chemical cocktails remains. A mixture of several substances can cause harm, even if the chemicals in the mix exist at ‘safe’ levels. However, the new proposals do not fully respond to this reality, as substances are still largely addressed as individual pollutants. For a clearer picture of the chemical exposure of Europe’s waters and to enact effective measures, monitoring and reporting needs to reflect the full reality of chemical mixtures. 

Do not remove 

There should be no backtracking on the progress of eliminating dangerous substances from our environment. Squeezed in with the positive efforts, the revision of water quality standards suggests removing the current 20-year EU water law deadline to phase out priority hazardous substances.  

This proposition comes only a few years before the deadline for the elimination of dangerous elements, such as mercury, would kick in. Moreover, Member States are not on track to reach this deadline. Deleting this target would risk decades of work to eliminate unsafe chemicals for human and environmental health protection. Instead of scrapping the current 20-year deadline, decisionmakers should propose stronger action to comply with EU water law.  

Civil society is an important part in achieving effective pollution action. Despite this, its input is often disregarded. The environmental standards for several substances have been proposed without the final opinion of the scientific committee and thereby disregarding input from civil society. When updating the lists of water pollutants, civil society as the voice of environment should be heard, not removed form discussion.  

30 going on 20?

The overhaul of the 30-year-old EU wastewater law maps the way for the next 20 years. Interim deadlines ensure steady progress for the next two decades and can avoid last-minute fruitless action. The rules address not only wastewater treatment but an overview for energy, circular economy and rights as access to sanitation and making information public – a long-awaited step forward. 

Urban wastewater is a main pathway for pollutants, including antimicrobial resistance genes, microplastics and pharmaceuticals. It’s positive that the wastewater rules proposed by the Commission require selected treatment plants to monitor and remove micropollutants. Such advanced treatment is known to remove a large spectrum of pollutants and improve water quality.  

The proposal to require locally established urban wastewater management plans with aim to reduce sewer overflows and untreated urban run-off, shows good intentions towards reducing pollution from these sources.  

In addition to depolluting water, the proposal for wastewater also emphasizes preventive measures. Rain can be retained and infiltrated to the ground by increasing green space and reduce impermeable surface. This decreases the load to sewer systems and helps to prevent urban flooding – a rising risk considering the climate crisis. Solutions like green roofs and rain gardens have benefits for the urban landscape and help make the most out of clean rainwater.  

As we set up ahead of two decades of depolluting work, such good intentions risk becoming empty shells. The content and objectives of the suggested urban wastewater management plans and measures is merely indicative. They should become legally binding to support a path for clean waters.  

Polluters get the bill 

Advanced water treatment comes at a cost – who should pick up the bill? Usually it’s the taxpayer, but the revised wastewater rules introduce guidelines to make polluters pay for the upgrade via Extended Producer Responsibility. This means that sources of pollution, such as pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, would be financially responsible for the cost to install advanced treatment. With this measure, companies can also be dissuaded from putting dangerous substances to the market so that these pollutants do not end up in our water environment. However, exemptions to the ‘polluter pays’ rule need to be strictly limited for it to be effective.  

Crystal clear future

As a result of decades of ineffective policy, EU waters are not healthy. The new proposals for revising these rules are a chance to set up the next decades of work and achieve the goal of clean waters in Europe. As the EU legislative process moves forward, European policymakers and Member States should endorse these proposals – but strengthen them to effectively make our waters crystal clear.