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16.3.1.  Quality objectives for European waters

    Water is an element indispensable not only to human life, but also to many of man's activities, from fishing to industry, by way of agriculture. Water plays an essential role in the natural ecological balance by procuring a substantial proportion of the oxygen necessary for life. In addition, seas, lakes and rivers are of great value for recreational activities and leisure, which are indispensable for town-dwellers. The Commission considers that appropriate water pricing has a key role to play in the development of sustainable water policies given that the sustainability of water resources is at stake in many river basins in Europe, from both a quantitative and a qualitative point of view [COM/2000/477].

    The physical interdependence of the various surroundings that make up the aquatic ecosystem, such as surface fresh water, groundwater and seawater, necessitates the coherent management of these resources. The fact that watercourses often cross several countries and that lakeshores also extend across the territories of several countries dictates the common management of these resources. Comparable, and sometimes common, management of water is indispensable, inter alia, to prevent distortions of competition between major water-using undertakings. Therefore, Directive establishing a framework for European action in the field of water policy lays down a basis for coordinating the Member States' policies and measures to protect inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater [Directive 2000/60, last amended by Directive 2014/101]. The principal objectives of this policy are to:

    - prevent further deterioration and protect and enhance the state of aquatic ecosystems;

    - promote sustainable use of water based on the long-term protection of available water resources;

    - ensure the progressive reduction of pollution of groundwater and prevent further pollution thereof;

    - provide a sufficient supply of good quality surface water and groundwater as needed for sustainable, balanced and equitable water use; and

    - protect territorial and marine waters.

    To achieve these objectives, the EU States lay down quality objectives or quality standards so as to manage water rationally and limit water pollution. Supplementing Framework-Directive 2000/60 on water policy, a decision establishes a list of 33 substances or groups of substances, some of which are identified as "priority hazardous substances", discharges of which must be halted, and others as "priority substances under review" [Decision 2455/2001]. A directive lays down environmental quality standards (EQS) for priority substances and certain other pollutants, including pesticides, heavy metals and biocides [Directive 2008/105]. These standards concern pollution peaks as well as annual average values. Member States must adopt the necessary measures to comply with these standards by 2015, with the aim of progressively reducing pollution from priority substances and ceasing or phasing out emissions, discharges and losses of priority hazardous substances.

    European directives on quality objectives, which vary according to the intended use of the water (drinking water, bathing water or water suitable for fish-breeding), lay down the pollution or nuisance levels not to be exceeded in a given surrounding or part thereof. They fix certain mandatory values, which must not be exceeded, and some guide values, which Member States endeavour to comply with.

    A Directive establishes specific measures as provided for in Article 17(1) and (2) of Framework-Directive 2000/60 in order to prevent and control groundwater pollution [Directive 2006/118, last amended by Directive 2014/80]. These measures include in particular: (a) criteria for the assessment of good groundwater chemical status; and (b) criteria for the identification and reversal of significant and sustained upward trends and for the definition of starting points for trend reversals.

    Concerning the quality of water intended for human consumption and water used in the food-manufacturing industries, a Directive lays down "mandatory" values and "guide" values i.e. maximum admissible concentrations of numerous undesirable elements for all water supplied for human consumption or used in the food industries [Directive 98/83, last amended by Directive 2015/1787], with the exception of natural mineral waters, which are governed by another Directive [Directive 2009/54]. A specific Directive lays down requirements for the protection of the health of the general public with regard to radioactive substances in water intended for human consumption [Directive 2013/51].

    As regards bathing water, a Directive lays down quality standards for running or still fresh water and sea water in regions in which bathing is authorised or tolerated [Directive 2006/7]. The Directive lays down a sampling procedure and fixes the frequency of the checks to be carried out and the methods of analysis to be applied to areas where the number of bathers is highest, and in particular at peak bathing times. The Member States have to forward to the Commission each year a summary report concerning the most significant properties of their bathing waters. The Commission publishes an annual summary report on bathing water quality in the European Union, including bathing water classifications, conformity with this Directive and significant management measures undertaken. Thus, this Directive represents an impressive undertaking for cleaning up Europe's coastlines, requiring substantial investment in wastewater purifiers and diffusers, an undertaking that has proved to be well worth the effort. Indeed, thanks to the European directive there has been a big improvement in the quality of bathing waters in recent years.

    A Directive aims to protect or improve the quality of those running or standing fresh waters which support, or which, if pollution were reduced or eliminated, would become capable of supporting fish life [Directive 2006/44]. A Directive on the quality required of shellfish waters, is directed towards protecting and improving such waters in order to permit the development of molluscs in favourable conditions and to contribute to the good quality of edible shellfish [Directive 2006/113].

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