The Water Framework Directive seeks to preserve beneficial uses of water and prevent or minimise discharges of dangerous substances or pollutants. It has broader ecological objectives based on protecting and where necessary restoring aquatic ecosystems and thereby safeguard the sustainable use of water resources.

A feature of the Water Framework Directive is that point discharges and diffuse discharges are both controlled. States must ensure that emission control is based on the best available techniques relevant emission limit values,  and in terms of diffuse discharges, controls including best environmental practices as specified in European legislation.

The Water Framework Directive is transposed into Irish law under the European Communities (Water Policy) Regulations. Every public authority has duties to exercise its  functions consistent with the regulation take appropriate actions to ensure compliance consult and  liaise and cooperate with other bodies encourage the active involvement of parties provide access to documentation for the development of a draft river basin plan.

The Water Framework Directive  2000 deals with EU policy in the area of water. It places certain obligations on the state. The EU commission takes actions against states for breach of the obligations. The legislation supplements earlier water pollution legislation.

The Water Framework Directive  is linked to a number of other EU directives in several ways. These include Directives relating to the protection of biodiversity (Birds and Habitats Directives), directives related to specific uses of waters (drinking water, bathing waters and urban waste water directives) and to directives concerned with the regulation of activities undertaken in the environment (Industrial Emissions and Environmental Impact Assessment directives).

More recent directives on topics such as Floods and the Marine Strategy Framework have significant linkages with the WFD which is also supplemented by the Priority Substances Directive and the Groundwater Directive. The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive  and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against agricultural pressures. The Sustainable Use of Pesticides and the Sewage Sludge Directives also provide for the control of materials applied to land.

The requirements have been implemented through a range of regulations. Public authorities are obliged to implement the Water Framework Directive. The must act consistently with and  promote compliance with the management plan. They must consult and liaise with other authorities

EU legislation has prescribed water standards for over 40 years. The EPA is obliged to recommend environmental water quality standards for priority substances discharged into the surface waters if the EU commission does not so do so within time limits contemplated.

EU directives prescribed water standards largely in accordance with international standards. Monitoring and sampling is required to measure water standards.


The primary purpose is concerned with the quality of waters. The directive focuses on the ecosystem and not just pollution control. Its purpose is to protect inland surface waters transitional waters coastal waters and groundwater bodies. It aimed at

  • providing a framework to prevent deterioration and enhance the status of aquatic ecosystems and promote sustainable water use;
  • enhanced protection and improvement of the aquatic environment;
  • ensure the progressive reduction of pollution of groundwater and prevent its further pollution; and
  • contribute to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts.

States must ensure that measures are put in place to limit the concentration of certain  discharges.

General Requirements

The directive seeks to prevent further deterioration protect and enhance aquatic ecosystems, promote sustainable water use, enhance and improve the aquatic environment ensure a progressive reduction of pollution of groundwater and contributing mitigation of the effects of floods and drought. The legislation embraces all bodies of surface water groundwater and protected areas.

The legislation requires implementation of measures to prevent deterioration of the status of bodies of surface and groundwater and aimed to achieve good surface water status by target dates. There are provisions for postponement of the deadlines subject to conditions. The legislation originally contemplated the latest possible time extensions to no later than 2021 except in limited cases.

There are provisions for temporary deterioration in status only where it is due to act of God force majeure or natural causes that are exceptional and could not reasonably be foreseen.

Waters are classified into five classes high good fair poor and bad. Ecological status is defined by the worst performance under  assessments of biological chemical and hydromorphological status. Monitoring programs are required for each River Basin District.

The State is required to avoid a deterioration in the status of surface water. The extent and clarity of the obligations varies. In some context the obligation is to use reasonable endeavours to maintain good status. Restoration obligations apply.

The legislation provides that the State must prevent or limit pollutant inputs and shall prevent the deterioration of the status of all groundwater bodies. This is effectively a standstill obligation so that no further deterioration permitted. Direct pollutant discharges into groundwater must generally be prohibited

The legislation requires that protected areas are to be distinguished from other water bodies. They are to be subject by reason of their vulnerable nature to  more stringent protection measures than other areas. Deadlines for achieving targets were specified.

There are some derogations and exceptions. Artificial and heavily modified water bodies are subject to less  exacting standards and criteria.

River Basin Districts

Under the directive Ireland has identified river basins and divided them into River Basin Districts. Coastal waters are also assigned to the district. There were eight River Basin Districts including three shared with Northern Ireland. River basin management plans are published.

The structure of multiple RBDs did not prove effective, either in terms of efficiency of developing the plans or in terms of implementation of those plans. As a consequence, a single national RBD has been defined. In addition, the existing North-Western and Neagh-Bann International RBDs  remain and there will be a single administrative area established to coordinate the management of these international RBDs with authorities in Northern Ireland.

The single River Basin District  is broken down into 46 catchment management units which are broken down into 383 sub- catchments. Ireland must ensure the requirements of the directive for the achievement of environmental objectives and all programmes of measures are coordinated for the whole of a River Basin District .

In relation to River Basin Districts that span the border member states are to ensure coordination with the aim of producing a single international river basin management plan. Plans are to be updated every six years. There is a single River Basin District  together with the North-Western International and Neagh Bann districts

River Basin Management Plan

River basin management plans are designed to secure the integrated management of groundwater including in rivers canals estuaries coastal waters and the water needs of ecosystems that depend on groundwater such as wetlands. The river basin planning system must provide a framework within which costs and benefits can be taken into account when setting environmental objectives. It is to facilitate proportionate and cost-effective measures to achieve the objectives.

Authorities are required to prepare a report for each River Basin District including an analysis of its characteristics, review of the impact of human activity on the status of surface waters and groundwater is specifications.

Local authorities are required to establish environmental objectives in relation to each River Basin District  and publish plans. They are required to make River Basin Management Plan for each district. The relevant plan should be reviewed every six years and updated.

There is provision for public consultation and involvement of interested parties in the production review and updating of the River Basin Management Plan. Copies must be sent to relevant member states.

The contents of the River Basin Management Plan are prescribed by the EU regulation. It must contain information on the status of waters within the district as well as programme of measures consider necessary to achieve good status. This may include changes in land use practice protection of groundwater abstractions by restricting spreading of agricultural wastes.

The European Communities (Water Policy)regulations specify dates for timetables and schedules in relation to River Basin Management Plans. Progress reports are required.

Advisory Bodies

The River Basin District Advisory Council was established through every River Basin District  to consider matters relating to the preparation of the River Basin Management Plan. The advisory Council can advise and make recommendations to the relevant public authorities.

The regulations provide for a Water Policy Advisory Committee to advise the minister in relation to preparation of the River Basin Management Plans, the establishment of environmental objectives in relation to River Basin Management Plans, the preparation of programs of measures to achieve the environmental objectives and other matters related to the protection and management of water resources.

Action Required

The EPA and public authorities were required to set up a classification system to establish the ecological and chemical status of surface waters and  groundwater. The programme shall specify the nature frequency and extent of monitoring to be take carried out. The EU directive sets out technical specifications for chemical analysis. The translated into the European Communities (Technical specification for the chemical analyis and monitoring of water status) Regulations 2011. Authorities must comply with standards for testing and monitoring laid down by international ISO.

There is a duty on the EPA to establish an inventory of the emissions discharges and  of priority and hazardous substance and other pollutants in each River Basin District. A monitoring network is required under the legislation. There are technical specifications and standardised methods for analysis and monitoring. Programs of monitoring of water status are required.

States are required to adopt a combined approach for both point and diffuse sources and ensure that all discharges into surface waters are controlled. They are required to  ensure implementation of emission controls based on best available techniques, relevant emission value limits and in the case of diffuse impacts best, environmental practices by the end of 2012.

Ireland must ensure that all discharges into surface waters are controlled. The controls must be based on best available technology. relevant emission limit values and in the case of diffuse impacts best environmental practice as defined under EU legislation.

When Environmental Quality Standards (EQSs) are implemented in respect of diffuse sources of pollution in order to achieve “good surface water status”, emission controls or limit values will also have to be set. EQSs define the minimum quality requirements of water, to limit the cumulative impacts of emissions (i.e. from diffuse sources), while Emission Limit Values focus on the maximum permissible quantities of pollutants that may be discharged from a particular (i.e. point) source.

Basic and supplementary measures are required for each River Basin District. States must introduce controls over abstractions of both surface and ground waters unless the abstraction has no significant impact on water status. States must ensure that biological indicators are used for surface water ecological quality assessment.

States are obliged to provide incentives for users to use water efficiently by certain dates and ensure that adequate contributions made by different water users. The recovery of the cost of water services is to be based on economic analysis carried out in accordance with certain criteria in the legislation. The river management plan must show the incentives provided and how various water users actually contribute to the cost.

States must implement water environmental quality standards in respect of diffuse sources of pollution in order to achieve good surface water status. Emission controls and limit values are to be set.

States must undertake programs of measures for each River Basin District. Measures must take account of the analysis. Each program must have basic measures and  supplementary measures including bylaws for particular places. Direct pollutant discharges into groundwater must be prohibited.

States must ensure public participation in the making of draft river basin management plans updates and revisions. There must be published timetables and work programmes for introducing and updating the plan. Access must be allowed to the draft plan and background documents. States must report to the European Commission and other states concerned.

Standards and Objectives

The EPA was obliged to classify specified surface water bodies according to their ecological status by a certain date. Surface water bodies with high good status must be not be allowed to deteriorate. Those with less than good status must be restored to at least good status by a deadline.

The EPA must make recommendations to the Department in relation to the establishment of environmental quality standards for substances included on the list of priority substances and further substances subsequently included. It must make recommendations to the Minister in relation to environmental quality standards.

There are legally binding environmental objectives for surface water. They give effect to the Water Framework Directive, the e dangerous substance directive and the environmental quality standards directive. There are duties on all public authorities to carry out functions in compliance with the regulations and to ensure that surface water bodies comply with the standards specified in the regulations and that they cooperate with other public bodies.

Point source and diffuse source discharges liable to cause water pollution are prohibited except where they are subject to a system of prior authorisation or registration based on generally binding rules. An authority that authorises the discharge to waters must lay down emission limits in the authorisation which establish the maximum concentration and quantity of a substance permissible in a discharge. Breach of legislation is an offence. A person is subject to a fine up to €5000 at three months imprisonment in the District Court or up to 3 years imprisonment and €500,000 on conviction on indictment in the circuit court.

Obligations on Public Bodies

Public authorities are obliged to comply with the requirements of the regulations and take all reasonable steps including where necessary the implementation of programs of measures. There are required to establish appropriate measures necessary to achieve the environmental objectives and quality standards including the objective of progressively reducing pollution by priority substances and cessation or phasing out permissions discharges for priority hazardous substance.

Schedule 1 to the regulations list the authorities which are subject to it, including the EPA local authorities, IFI, boards regional authorities the ESB and others. The regulations provide for the examination and review of existing discharge authorisations by public authorities to ensure that the emission limits laid down in the authorisation support compliance with the objectives.


Where  Minister EPA coordinating local authority for the River Basin District  and where appropriate another public authority or body is of the opinion that a person public authority or body has failed to discharge has failed to comply with a function under the regulation or is performed the function in the unsatisfactory manner coordinating local authority a report  may be requested. Having considered the report, the coordinating local authority EPA minister or the relevant public authority may issue advice and recommendations.

An application may be brought to the District Court Circuit Court or High Court. Where the court is satisfied the person authority or body is not undertaking or does not intend to undertake its functions in the manner required, in compliance  with the environmental objectives established for by direction of the  coordinating local authority EPA or minister, the court may direct that person body or authority to take such steps as are necessary to address the inconsistencies of the matters identified and make such other provision as the court considers appropriate.


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