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Sci Total Environ. 2008 Aug 1;400(1-3):32-41. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.04.029. Epub 2008 May 27.

The Water Framework Directive: total environment or political compromise?

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK.


The European Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) is potentially ground-breaking legislation. It seeks to bring about improvement of aquatic habitats in Europe to 'good ecological status', defined as slightly different from 'high ecological status', with no or minimal human impact. The characteristics of pristine ecological status include nutrient parsimony, a defined characteristic structure of the system (including geomorphological structure and hydrology, biological and food web structure) and the connectivity and extent of the system that are essential for resilience to change. This modern ecological understanding is being ignored by government agencies charged with enacting the Directive. Schemes are being devised that measure secondary characteristics of habitats using approaches drawn from traditional water quality management. Typologies, indicated by the Directive to give a geographical basis within which to determine ecological status, are also being corrupted with different typologies used for different determinands. The ecological reality of reasonably distinctive, integrated systems (an erosive upland river versus a floodplain system, for example) is being avoided. Emphasis is being placed on precision of measurement of specific determinands rather than accuracy in what is being measured and proposed schemes are complex and expensive when accurate assessment could be carried out much more cheaply. Many are also likely to become redundant as effects of climate change take hold. The current approach will lead to some improvement in water quality but not to the fundamental change in ecological quality intended by the Directive and has partly been encouraged by lack of definition and contradictions within the Directive itself. Documented details currently available from the UK agencies are used to illustrate how the intentions of the Directive are being undermined for ostensibly political convenience through processes of redefinition and limitation of characteristics measured. There appears to be a parallel concern among official and non-governmental European bodies.

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