Towards better water quality

In recent decades, the quality of the water in rivers, lakes, the sea and the quality of ground water has improved significantly. But it can always be improved more. How much more is determined by the European Water Framework Directive. 

This agreement between the countries in the European Union (EU) serves as the starting point for all policy to improve the water quality in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

In the past: fish mortality, bad odours, polluted lake beds, river beds and sea beds

In the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly, water pollution was a large problem in the Netherlands and other European countries. It manifested itself from time to time in the form of massive fish mortality, bad odours and very polluted lake beds, river beds and sea beds. The government tackled these problems by imposing far-reaching limitations on discharges by companies and improving the treatment of (waste) water. As a result of these efforts, and due to the development of phosphate-free detergents, the water quality improved by leaps and bounds.

Now: water quality can improve even more

So much has already been achieved. But improvements are still possible. Based on the river basin management plans of 2009, it seems that the chemical quality of most water bodies is good. In a limited number of water bodies, the maximum allowed limits are still being exceeded for a limited number of substances, such as cadmium. In most bodies of water, the water life – plants and animals that live in and around the water – is doing moderately well.

The water quality for swimming is not sufficient in about 10% of the locations due to bacterial problems. Besides some small lakes are plagued with thick floating layers of blue-green algae during summer heat waves.

The quality of our drinking water is good. But to keep the same drinking water as clean (and cheap) as possible, it is important for the quality of our ground water or surface water to be good as well.

The fact that the water quality, in many cases, is still not at the level we would like to have it is caused primarily by:

  1. Treated discharges and sewage overflows. After treatment, discharges are still a type of pollution. When heavy rainfall occurs, sewers sometimes become inundated and overflow. The untreated sewer water that overflows then makes its way into lakes and rivers.
  2. Diffuse pollution. These gradually trickle into the environment. Things such as the pollutants found in the exhaust of cars (which are then washed into the water by rainfall). This is called diffuse pollution. It concerns small sources of pollution that occur in large numbers and, therefore, have a huge adverse impact on the environment.
  3. Legacies from the past. Soil  polluted long ago can, after many years, start to threaten the ground water at certain places. The pollutants could be things such as oil left on the site of a former garage.
  4. Nutritients and crop protection agents. The excessive use of manure in agriculture is a significant source of nitrogen and phosphate in the environment. Discharges from factories and sewers, as well as nitrogen from exhaust gases, also play a role. Dutch fertilisation policy is aimed at preventing excessive fertilisation as much as possible. Since the introduction of the fertilisation policy, excessive fertilisation is less common. Use of crop protection agents by agriculture causes local and temporarily, but frequent exceeding of maximum allowed limits.

Sufficient and safe drinking water

Clean drinking water is a necessity of life. We use an average of 126 litres of water per capita a day to drink, prepare food, for personal hygiene and for other household uses.

The government guarantees that everyone in the Netherlands has access to sufficient and safe drinking water at an affordable price. That is why the national government sets quality requirements for the production and supply of water. These requirements are established in the Drinking Water Act (Drinkwaterwet) and the Drinking Water Decree (Drinkwaterbesluit). On 1 July 2011 new rules took effect which, among other things, should guarantee that:

  • the quality of drinking water remains good;
  • there is sufficient water in the future (supply certainty);
  • drinking water remains affordable.

Water Framework Directive (WFD)

The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) was established to improve and protect the water quality in the river basins of the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt and Ems. The Framework Directive sets standards for the quality of the surface water (coastal water, rivers and lakes, drainage ditches) and the ground water. The WFD indicates, for example, what the oxygen level in the water should be, the maximum amount of heavy metals a certain type of water may contain and how much and what types of fish should be found in the water. EU member states must meet these standards before 2015. The Netherlands has made use of the option to postpone the achievement of these goals. The member states are free to determine for themselves how they will meet the standards. The Netherlands has set up a large package of measures. The targets and the measures have been reported to the European Commission with the river basin management plans for 2009. These plans will be updated in 2015.

Other European directives, too, set standards for water quality, often to supplement the WFD. Thus there has been a separate directive for saltwater areas since 2008: the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Furthermore, a separate Ground Water Directive was established for ground water. There is also the  Priority Substances Directive (PSD).

The requirements that all these directives set for water quality have been translated into Dutch legislation. The most important requirements are listed in the Decree on Quality Requirements and Monitoring for Water 2009 (BKMW 2009) and the associated ministerial Water Framework Directive Monitoring Programme (in Dutch). The decree also indicates which organisations will monitor the quality standards.

Furthermore, a separate directive was established for the quality of bathing water: the Bathing Water Directive.

Water Act: simplification of legislation

To be able to achieve the goals of the WFD, the fragmented legislation in the area of water management needed to be simplified. With this in mind, the  Water Act was implemented at the end of 2009. The Water Act considers water as a single system and, in many cases, makes no distinction between ground water and surface water. The Water Act replaced eight existing laws; six different permits were incorporated in a single new permit. It is now much easier for citizens and companies to apply for a water permit (for things such as collecting ground water or discharging waste water).

National Water Plan

In response to the WFD, the Dutch government presented its own vision at the end of 2009 of the water policy up to 2015: the National Water Plan. Just like the WFD, the National Water Plan divides the Netherlands into four river basin regions: the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt and Ems river basins (see map). River basins not only comprise the water in the principal river, but also all the water that flows to and from the principal river.

For each river basin, a  river basin management plan was drafted under the National Water Plan. In the river basin management plan it is stated concretely what the current water quality is like and what measures are necessary to improve this quality. The final goal is to achieve ‘a good chemical and ecological situation’ in the water.