The Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) is the most significant piece of European water legislation to be produced for over twenty years.

The WFD will rationalise and update existing water legislation and introduce an integrated and co-ordinated approach to water management in Europe based on the concept of river basin planning.

The Directive takes a holistic approach to water management and will update existing EC Water legislation through the introduction of a statutory system of analysis and planning based upon the river basin. The Environment Agency is the sole competent authority charged with implementation of the Directive in England and Wales.
The major aims of the Directive are:

  • To prevent further deterioration and protect and enhance the status of aquatic ecosystems and associated wetlands;
  • To promote the sustainable consumption of water; to reduce pollution of waters from priority substances;
  • To prevent the deterioration in the status and to progressively reduce pollution of groundwaters; and
  • To contribute to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts.

The overall requirement of the Directive is to achieve "good ecological and good chemical status" by 2015 unless there are grounds for derogation. There is also a general "no deterioration" provision to prevent deterioration in status. These will require the management of the quality, quantity and structure of aquatic environments. The Directive also requires the reduction and ultimate elimination of priority hazardous substances and the reduction of priority substances to below set quality standards.

Within the Agency work on the Directive is being organised in the WFD Programme, which is supported by a number of key work areas.

Implementation of the Water Framework Directive in the UK

The Environment Agency will be named the sole competent authority charged with the Directive's implementation in England and Wales.


To assist in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD):

  • Three consultations have been carried out by Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive;
  • The UK Technical Advisory Group (UK TAG) has been established by the UK Administrations to provide agreed UK technical advice and solutions; and
  • Establishment of the Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) to allow as far as possible, a coherent and harmonious implementation of the Water Framework Directive across the EU.

Characterisation Atlas - Pressures and Impacts Assessment Review

The Directive requires man-made pressures on the water environment, such as sewage discharge and water abstraction, to be assessed and managed in an integrated way. It applies to all waters including rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater.

To put the Directive into practice, we must change the management and protection of the water environment.


The Directive sets out a planning cycle, with four main parts:


  • environmental and economic assessment or "characterisation" of river basin districts and the pressures and impacts on the water environment;
  • environmental monitoring based on the river basin characterisation;
  • setting environmental objectives;
  • designing and carrying out a programme of measures to achieve the environmental objectives.
  • Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) are managing the economic characterisation work. Please see link on the Defra website for more information.
  • Purpose of the quality review - Details the purpose of the quality review of the draft pressures and impacts assessments.
  • What is River Basin Characterisation? - Explains the background to river basin characterisation for the Water Framework Directive.
  • What are the pressures and impacts assessments? - Information on what the pressure and impact assessment maps show and how the data were derived.
  • How can I get involved? - Contains downloadable pressure and impact maps and information on how you can provide comments on them.
  • What happens next? - Explains the process of submitting the final maps to Defra and where to go for more information.


What if a water body fails to meet its environmental objectives?


If a water body is likely to fail its environmental objectives:


  • this water body will be included in the first river basin management planning process in which a programme of measures will be considered;
  • alternative objectives will be considered (for example, a longer timescale for meeting good status);
  • we will need to consider whether good status can be achieved without disproportionate costs;
  • we will need to check whether existing improvement plans, including water company investment programmes, will address the shortfall;
  • new and transferring licence applications related to these water bodies will be given priority attention.


If a water body is likely to meet its environmental objectives:


  • at present we have no major concerns but will review the assessment in future years;
  • we still need to regulate pressures and monitor to ensure that no deterioration occurs.


What is River Basin Characterisation?


The Water Framework Directive sets out a river basin management planning process. For each river basin district (RBD) a river basin management plan (RBMP) will be prepared, implemented and reviewed on a six-year cycle. River Basin Characterisation is an important early part of this process, which for each RBD, requires the following:


  • an analysis of its characteristics;
  • a review of the impact of human activity on the status of the water bodies within the RBD;
  • an economic analysis of water use.


There are two main stages to environmental characterisation. The first is identifying water bodies and describing their natural characteristics. The second stage is assessing the pressures and impacts on the water environment. The assessment identifies those water bodies that are unlikely to achieve the environmental objectives set out in the Directive. The results will be used to prioritise both our environmental monitoring and those water bodies where improvement action is required.


The analysis has been difficult and complex. Previous environmental assessments have focused on pollution pressures and have been supported by extensive chemical and biological monitoring information. Under River Basin Characterisation, we have developed new methods of analysis for integrating and interpreting information on different types of pressure.


The following kinds of pressure have been examined for their potential impacts on water bodies:


  • point source pollution, such as effluent discharges from sewage treatment works and industry;
  • diffuse source pollution, including run-off from the land and acid rain;
  • water abstraction, including removal of water for public supplies or manufacturing; and flow regulation, including the control of river flows for hydro-electric power, navigation, water supplies or other purposes;
  • physical or "morphological" alterations to water bodies, such as land claim for development, flood defence structures or channel modifications.

This is only the first step towards improving the aquatic environment through the river basin management planning process. The information will continually be improved and refined, making the next cycle of characterisation easier and more robust than this first assessment.

River Basin Districts and Water Bodies

River Basin Districts will be the main areas for co-ordinating management of the water environment. They comprise river basins and their associated coastal waters. There are 11 River Basin Districts in England and Wales. Two cross the border with Scotland, the Solway Tweed District and Northumbria District, and a further two, the Dee and Severn Districts, cross the border between Wales and England.

River basins are made up of lakes, rivers, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters, together with the land they drain. The water cycle links all these waters from the highest hilltops to the sea at the river mouth, estuaries and open coastal waters. There are important ecological connections across river basins. For example, sea trout migrate from coastal waters into river basins to spawn in streams often far from the river mouth. Their young hatch and grow, before moving into rivers and leaving fresh waters to reach adulthood in coastal waters.

The waters of England and Wales have been divided into water bodies. These are lakes and parts of rivers, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater. They include artificial water bodies, such as canals, and heavily modified water bodies, such as deepened and straightened rivers. Environmental objectives will be set for each water body.

Management and reporting of river basin district

The Directive recognises that decisions about the different parts of a River Basin District should not be made in isolation. The river basin planning system is designed to ensure that the management of each water body takes account of its importance to the condition of the District as a whole. For example, a badly designed dam on a river or a badly polluted estuary could disrupt the life cycle of migratory animals such as sea trout.

For each river basin district we will produce plans describing:

  • its environmental character (identifying water bodies and their natural characteristics, including protected areas, and assessing the main pressures and impacts on them);
  • monitoring programmes;
  • objectives for the water bodies;
  • an action plan or programme of measures to achieve the environmental objectives.

River Basin Districts

The Water Framework Directive requires the identification of River Basin Districts (RBD). These districts are areas of land and sea, made up of one or more river basins together with their associated groundwaters and coastal waters.

The achievement of environmental objectives established by the Directive, particularly all programmes of measures, must be co-ordinated for the whole of the River Basin District, and reported to the European Commission as such. River Basin Districts in England and Wales have been determined using hydrological river basin boundaries. Small river basins may be joined with larger river basins, or joined with neighbouring small basins to create a RBD. Groundwaters that do not follow a particular river basin are assigned to the nearest or most appropriate RBD.

Coastal waters (out to 1 nautical mile) in England and Wales, are assigned to the nearest or most appropriate RBD. There are nine RBDs identified in England and Wales, and an additional two cross-border RBDs with Scotland (Northumbria RBD and the Solway Tweed RBD). To view the RBDs in pdf format, follow this link. A1 maps will be made available at the Environment Agency's Regional office's and main Area office's.

Protected Areas

Protected areas are designated for special protection under specific EC directives. This is either to protect their surface water or groundwater, or to conserve habitats and species that directly depend on those waters.

For each river basin district a register of protected areas must be drawn up to help ensure that water management contributes to achieving the objectives set for them.

Our register consists of a database and a set of maps of all the protected areas, as summarised below.

This is a new category of protected area which will replace the system of drinking water protection currently provided by the Surface Water Abstraction Directive (75/440/EEC), which will be repealed at the end of 2007. Each protected area is an identified surface water body or groundwater body which provides drinking water.

Areas designated to protect economically significant species

These are protected areas established under earlier EC directives aimed at protecting shellfish (79/923/EEC) and freshwater fish (78/659/EEC).

Recreational waters

These are bathing waters designated under the Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC), including both coastal and freshwater areas. Standards are set to protect and improve their quality to safeguard human health.

Nutrient sensitive areas

These comprise nitrate vulnerable zones and polluted waters designated under the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) and areas designated as sensitive areas under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC).

Areas designated for the protection of habitats or species

The maintenance or improvement of the water environment is an important factor in the protection of these areas. They comprise the aquatic parts of Natura 2000 sites designated under the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC) and the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC).

Improved and protected inland and coastal waters


Our rivers, lakes and coastal waters will be far cleaner. They will sustain diverse and healthy ecosystems, water sports and recreation such as boating and fishing, and those uses needed by a thriving and healthy community.

The outcomes we will help achieve:

  • Abstractions and discharges will neither damage the environment nor threaten human health.
  • Damaging pollution incidents will have been prevented at source.
  • The causes of water pollution, eutrophication, and acidification will have been fully controlled.
  • The quantities of chemicals entering the sea will have been greatly reduced.
  • Surface waters will sustain a diverse variety of habitats and wildlife.
  • Water will be acknowledged as a valuable resource.
  • Surface waters will be regarded as a recreational and amenity asset.
  • Inland and coastal waters will be cherished by local communities.

What we will do:

  • We will work to clean up polluted waters and to reduce the risk of further pollution. We will ensure that aquatic and wetland wildlife has the amount of clean, healthy water it requires.

Public Participation under the Water Framework Directive

How will stakeholders (including the general public) feed into the River Basin Management Plan consultation process?

The need for public involvement is an important feature of the Water Framework Directive and in certain areas (eg. development of River Basin Management Plans) will be statutory.

The term "public participation" does not appear in the Directive. The term has been used as a surrogate for the requirements of Article 14. However, "public participation" covers a wider range of "stakeholder engagement" approaches than is required by the Directive. Three forms of "stakeholder engagement" are referred to in Article 14:

  • Access to background information
  • Consultation in three steps of the planning process
  • Active involvement of interested parties in all aspects of the implementation of the WFD

The Environment Agency intends to devise an approach to "WFD public participation" that has "consultation" and "access to information" at its core but that also includes wider "active involvement" where this is necessary to help meet the requirements of the WFD.

While the WFD doesn’t provide complete definitions or approaches for Article 14 and Annex VII requirements, guidance has been produced at the European level to clarify and develop the understanding necessary to assist the practical implementation of the Directive. The UK environment agencies have contributed to this.

The Agency is in the process of developing a more coherent and consistent approach to consultation / involvement through:

  • A social policy framework
  • A communication strategy on how to engage the public
  • Development of an Agency business process for consultation and involvement