Our water courses are under serious threat. Among these, chemical pollution stands out as a diverse and far-reaching pressure. In Europe at the moment, only 38% of surface waters are considered to have a healthy chemical status. Recently the European Parliament voted to improve proposals by the European Commission. Now it is up the Member States in the EU Council to make progress.
Pesticides play a major role in the pollution of our water resources and aquatic ecosystems. Among the 446 currently approved active substances in the European market, 105 are classified as having chronic aquatic toxicity 1. In other words, 1 out of 4 approved active pesticide substances in the EU is classified with chronic aquatic toxicity. A recent European Environmental Agency briefing highlighted that in 2020 one or more pesticides were detected above thresholds of concern at 22% of all monitoring sites in surface waters. Exceedances of thresholds were also detected in between 4-11% of groundwater monitoring sites between 2013/ 2020. The situation is more than urgent and actions must be taken.
How is water pollution regulated in the EU?
The main pieces of legislation relevant to pesticides are:
- The Water Framework Directive (WFD) (Directive 2000/60/EC) is a comprehensive and uniform directive that applies to all member states and helps ensure the quality and protection of all waters (inland, surface, coastal, groundwater, and transitional waters).
- The Groundwater Directive (Directive 2006/118/EC) is a subdirective of the WFD which aims towards the same objectives, only with the limited scope of groundwaters.
- The Environmental Quality Standards Directive (Directive 2008/105/EC) lays down environmental quality standards (EQS) for priority substances and certain other pollutants as provided by the WFD, aiming to achieve good surface water chemicals.
On 26 October last year, the European Commission presented its proposal for a Directive amending the WFD, the GWD and the EQSD. The proposal updates the lists of priority substances for surface and groundwater and their associated legal threshold values that are used to assess chemical status under the WFD. It also covers monitoring and reporting of concentrations and measures taken to mitigate pollution.
The Commission’s proposal adds a range of crucial water pollutants such as PFAS, pharmaceuticals and pesticides to the list of priority substances for surface water. This will require Member States to monitor their presence in water and ensure that quality standards are not surpassed. However, the proposal largely falls short of tackling chemical mixtures and also reduces and limits the ambition of monitoring substances of emerging concern.
In the light of the co-decision process, both the European Parliament and the European Council can propose their amended versions of the text. The European Parliament started working rapidly on its own contribution, resulting in an ambitious report, which was adopted by the European Parliament’s ENVI Committee in June 2023, and a successful vote in favour of this report in plenary on the 12th of September 2023.
What are the main takeaways following the EU Parliament vote in plenary?
In the initial Commission’s proposal, some welcomed amendments to the previous directives were reported: the establishment of EU-wide threshold values for River Basin Specific Pollutants (RBSP) to counter the previously large variance of standards used in different countries, the groundwater Watch List was made mandatory and the Effect Based Methods were introduced.
However, the proposal fell short on several points, points later addressed by the European Parliament’s report. Amongst many amendments, the following deserve to be noted:
- The Groundwater Watch List number of substances was changed to a “minimum of five substances” with no maximum threshold, and its updating cycle was set to be updated “at least every 36 months or more frequently if new scientific evidence emerges” .
- The Surface Water Watch List number of substances which had been reduced by the Commission’s proposal was similarly harmonised (minimum of five substances) and the same updating cycle was proposed (at least every 26 months).
- The updating frequency of the list of priority substances was also increased by the EP’s report, going from every 6 years to every 4 years.
The European Parliament report also introduced some welcomed additions:
- On multiple occasions the report emphasises the link between water pollution and agriculture practices, highlighting that greater source control should be implemented as well as making the point that the interconnection between other regulations (in the case of the pesticides, Regulation 1107/2009 and the currently discussed Sustainable Use Regulation) should be further developed. Although no specific measures are proposed by the report, this opens the door for the European institutions towards a better harmonisation of the WFD with other regulations.
- Moreover, on several occurrences, the establishment of an Extended Producer Responsibility mechanism is introduced in the Water Framework Directive, the Groundwater Directive and the Environment Quality Standards Directive by the report.
Pesticides in the European Parliament report
The European Parliament’s report addresses some major shortcomings of the Commission’s proposal on the topic of pesticides.
Firstly, in the case of surface water, the Commission introduced a threshold limit of 0.5 µg/L for the total of active substances in pesticides, including their relevant metabolites, degradation and reaction products. At the same time, it proposed quality standards for glyphosate that are much higher than this threshold. Additionally, the existing EQS for atrazine surpasses the total threshold. In the newly voted report, this inconsistency is corrected: both Glyphosate’s and Atrazine’s AA-EQSs for inland surface water are lowered to 0,1 µg/l and to 0,01 µg/l for other surface waters.
Secondly, for groundwater, the 0.1 μg/L threshold for individual pesticides and 0.5 µg/L for the sum of all pesticides introduced in the 2006 GWD was revised by the report (upon Commission’s review). The individual substance threshold was lowered to 0,05 µg/L and the total threshold was also reduced to 0,25 µg/L. Additionally, the different threshold values for non-relevant metabolites (nRms) proposed by the European Commission were deleted and unified under one individual and one total threshold. The latter is set at 0,1 for individual substances and 0,5 for the total of substances. This sets the path for further monitoring and assessment of the impact of nRms in surface and groundwater, ignored until now by the WFD.
What is needed now?
We welcome the strong support from the European Parliament to address water pollution. Now it is up to the environmental ministers. They are delayed in their discussions and are not expected to reach an agreement before the end of the year. All eyes are on the European Council. The member states are making very slow progress on the topic and that, to this day, a general approach is still to be foreseen.
Further delays in finalising the new lists will mean the EU may not have updated thresholds in time for the 2028-2033 river basin management cycle. That is without saying that the current lists of surface and groundwater pollutants date back to 2013 and 2014 respectively, even though they should be updated every six years according to article 8 of the WFD.
It is a well-known fact that curbing water pollution is, therefore, a matter of urgency. There is no time to lose as more needs to be done to not only monitor and assess water quality but to protect our watercourses and prevent the pollution affecting them.
 ENVI committee, (2023), REPORT on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 2000/60/EC establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy, Directive 2006/118/EC on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration and Directive 2008/105/EC on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 PAN Europe, Clear message from Parliament: we must tackle water pollution: https://www.pan-europe.info/press-releases/2023/09/clear-message-parliam...
 Amendment 85: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendment 89: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendments 126, 130: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendment 117: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendments 8, 10, 11, 14, 31, 68: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendments 32, 94, 132: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendments 150, 151: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendment 145: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html
 Amendment 148: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0238_EN.html