Research into 'ownership' of water quality: How to meet WFD targets in 2027?

EU Water Framework Directive: administrative and legal obstacles and opportunities

Tessa Rötscheid and Charlotte Offringa (photo: Kees Bennema)

As part of their PhD project at Utrecht University, lawyer Tessa Rötscheid and public administration expert Charlotte Offringa will investigate administrative and legal obstacles (as well as opportunities) affecting the achievement of water quality objectives in 2027, in accordance with the European Water Framework Directive (WFD). So far, this task is mainly on the plate of the water authorities (the main water management organisations in our country), but heavily depends on cooperation from other sectors, such as agriculture, energy, industry and spatial planning. Important questions are therefore: How can the necessary ‘co-ownership’ be organised, and how can WFD goals become an integral part of sectoral policies? The research is funded by the Foundation for Applied Water Research (STOWA), the knowledge centre of the water authorities. STOWA shall ensure that interim findings and solutions are made immediately available for practical use, as time is pressing. 

For this project, both PhD students are working closely with other researchers within Utrecht University, from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development (Faculty of Geosciences) and the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law (Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance), and researchers at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). 

The 'water column' can't do it alone

The water authorities have already done a lot in recent years to improve ecological and chemical water quality, says Charlotte Offringa: “Take all the fish ladders, the re-meandering of streams and the improvement of water treatment plants in recent years. That did lead to improvements in the chemical and ecological state of the water. Only: we are not there yet. More is needed, also and especially at the administrative-legal level.”

Earlier, Professor of European and National Water Law Marleen van Rijswick (also PhD supervisor) said about this, speaking at a Lower House Committee meeting: “So far, we have implemented the WFD very much within the 'water column', but for the follow-up until 2027, it is very important that all activities, sectors and ministries pick up the gauntlet.” To achieve the WFD objectives, it is now up to the whole of society. Not just water authorities and drinking water companies, but all sectors must start contributing to improving water quality, including construction, agriculture and industry.  

Relying on voluntary cooperation

Ultimately, a lasting improvement of water quality can only be achieved by less leaching of nutrients and pesticides from agriculture and less discharge of toxic substances by industry (e.g. PFAS), matters over which water authorities have limited control. Previous research shows that water authorities still rely heavily on voluntary measures, and in the case of self-initiated measures often depend on the cooperation of landowners. “Improvements, such as river re-meandering and reducing nutrients and pesticides, encounter resistance from businesses. Voluntariness is then often chosen over enforcement or coercion”, Offringa says. There has only recently been more focus on intensifying core tasks such as licensing, supervision and enforcement. 

Initial research questions

Both PhD students have only just started their PhD trajectories, the duration of which coincides nicely with the target date for the WFD objectives. In the coming period, Offringa and Rötscheid will focus, among other things, on the extent to which the national and decentralised authorities have applied the right criteria and laws and regulations when designating WFD water bodies. Non-designated, often smaller water bodies (such as large ditches) do not have to comply with the WFD but – when added together – can have a great impact on the quality of our rivers and lakes. They also launch the first of three sub-studies on the role of administrative mechanisms in the implementation of hydromorphological modifications, such as the restoration of natural stream courses, aimed at achieving the healthy ecological water status according to WFD criteria. 

About the project

The project KRW: bestuurskundig-juridische bouwstenen voor het verhogen van doelbereik [WFD: administrative-legal building blocks for increasing target attainment] is funded by STOWA and carried out by Utrecht University and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

The research is supervised by Prof. Hens Runhaar of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development (Faculty of Geosciences), and Prof. Marleen van Rijswick and Prof. Frank Groothuijse of the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law (Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance)