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Environmental quality standards applicable to surface water

The Commission establishes environmental quality standards so as to limit the quantity of certain chemical substances that pose a significant risk to the environment and to health in surface water in the European Union (EU). These standards are coupled with an inventory of discharges, emissions and losses of these substances in order to ascertain whether the goals of reducing or eliminating such pollution have been achieved.


Directive 2008/105/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy, amending and subsequently repealing Council directives 82/176/EEC, 83/513/EEC, 84/156/EEC, 84/491/EEC, 86/280/EEC and amending Directive 2000/60/EC [Official Journal L 348 of 24.12.2008].


This Directive sets out environmental quality standards concerning the presence in surface water * of certain pollutants and substances or groups of substances identified as priority on account of the substantial risk they pose to or via the aquatic environment.

The priority substances are defined by Directive 2000/60/EC (the Water Framework Directive) which establishes a list of 33 priority substances including cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel and its compounds, benzene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and DDT total. Twenty priority substances are classed as hazardous.

The planned environmental quality standards are limits to the degree of concentration, i.e. the quantity in water of the substances concerned must not exceed certain thresholds. Two types of standard are proposed:

  • the average value or concentration of the substance concerned calculated over a one-year period. The purpose of this standard is to ensure the long-term quality of the aquatic environment;
  • the maximum allowable concentration of the substance measured specifically. The purpose of this second standard is to limit short-term pollution peaks.

The quality standards are differentiated for inland surface waters * (rivers and lakes) and other surface waters (transitional *, coastal and territorial waters). Specific standards are also set for metals and certain other substances.

Member States must ensure compliance with these standards. They must also verify that the concentration of substances concerned does not increase significantly in sediments and/or the relevant biota.

The Directive also provides for Member States to establish transitional mixing areas, where the quality standards may be exceeded provided that the rest of the surface water body complies with those standards. These areas must be clearly identified in the river basin management plans established in accordance with the Water Framework Directive.

For each river basin, Member States must establish an inventory of emissions, discharges and losses of all substances identified in this Directive. On the basis of this inventory, the Commission must verify whether, by 2018, the objectives of gradually reducing pollution from priority substances and of ceasing or phasing out emissions, discharges and losses of priority hazardous substances are reached.

Directive 2008/105/EC repeals Directives 82/176/EEC, 83/513/EEC, 84/156/EEC, 84/491/EEC and 86/280/EEC with effect from 22 December 2012.


Article 16(7) of the Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) required the establishment of environmental quality standards applicable to water. The environmental quality standards for priority substances and certain other pollutants must be respected in order to achieve a good surface water chemical status.

This system should prove highly beneficial both to the European public and to the environment. It would, inter alia, reduce the costs of treating drinking water and improve the quality of organisms living in these waters and of livestock drinking these waters. Moreover, the proposal will significantly reduce administrative burden.

Key terms used in the act
  • Surface water: inland waters, except groundwater, transitional waters and coastal waters, except in respect of chemical status, for which territorial waters are also included.
  • Inland waters: all standing or flowing water on the surface of the land, and all groundwater on the landward side of the baseline from which the breadth of territorial waters is measured.
  • Transitional waters: bodies of surface water in the vicinity of river mouths which are partly saline in character as a result of their proximity to coastal waters but which are substantially influenced by freshwater flows.


ActEntry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal
Directive 2008/105/EC



OJ L 348 of 24.12.2008


Commission Communication of 17 July 2006 entitled "Integrated prevention and control of chemical pollution of surface waters in the European Union" [COM(2006) 398 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
In this Communication, the Commission explains that it prefers to leave the adoption of specific measures concerning surface water to the Member States on the grounds of efficacy, flexibility and cost. It considers that the relevant Community legislation ensures a high level of protection of the aquatic environment and public health, provided it is applied correctly and comprehensively.
To this end it proposes several measures, including amendment of the IPPC Directive and the Pesticides Directive, enhanced implementation and enforcement of legislation via a system of information exchange, the introduction of procedures for Member States to provide useful information for decision-making, and improved access to information via a water information system (WISE).

Directive 2006/11/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 February 2006 on pollution caused by certain dangerous substances discharged into the aquatic environment of the Community (Codified version) [Official Journal L 64 of 4.4.2006].
This Directive codifies and replaces Directive 76/464/EEC, which makes it obligatory for all discharges of certain substances to be authorised, sets ceilings for emissions of these substances and requires Member States to improve the quality of their waters.

Last updated: 24.07.2009
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