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Environmental quality standards applicable to surface water

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Environmental quality standards applicable to surface water

The Commission establishes environmental quality standards so as to limit the concentrations of certain chemical substances that pose a significant risk to the environment or to human health in surface waters in the European Union (EU). These standards are complemented by a requirement to establish inventories of the 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 (EQS) concerning the presence in surface water of certain substances or groups of substances identified as priority pollutants 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). 33 were specified by Decision 2455/2001/EC, and a further 12 by amending Directive 2013/39/EU. These substances include the metals cadmium, lead, mercury and nickel, and their compounds, benzene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and several pesticides. 21 priority substances are classed as hazardous.

The EQS in Directive 2008/105/EC are limits on the concentration of the priority substances and eight other pollutants in water (or biota), i.e. thresholds which must not be exceeded if good chemical status is to be met. Two types of water standard are proposed:

  • A threshold for the average concentration of the substance concerned calculated from measurements over a one-year period. The purpose of this standard is to ensure protection against long-term exposure to pollutants in the aquatic environment;
  • A maximum allowable concentration of the substance concerned, i.e. the maximum for any single measurement. The purpose of this standard is to ensure protection against short-term exposure, i.e. pollution peaks.

The quality standards are differentiated for inland surface waters (rivers and lakes) and other surface waters (transitional , coastal and territorial waters). The annual average EQS for two metals takes account of their bioavailability. For some substances, biota EQS are set, meaning that the specified concentration of the relevant substance in biota (generally fish) must not be exceeded.

Member States must ensure compliance with the EQS. They must also take measures to ensure that the concentrations of substances that tend to accumulate in sediment and/or biota do not increase significantly in sediments and/or the relevant biota.

Directive 2013/39/EU updates the EQS for seven of the 33 original priority substances in line with the latest scientific and technical knowledge concerning the properties of the substances.

The revised EQS for those seven existing priority substances must be taken into account for the first time in Member States' river basin management plans from 22 December 2015 with the aim of achieving good surface water chemical status in relation to those substances by 22 December 2021.

The 12 newly identified priority substances and their EQS should be taken into account in the establishment of supplementary monitoring programmes and in preliminary programmes of measures to be submitted by the end of 2018, with the aim of achieving good surface water chemical status in relation to those substances by 22 December 2027.

Directive 2013/39/EU also introduces a provision that the Commission will establish a watch list of substances for which Union-wide monitoring data are to be gathered for the purpose of supporting future prioritisation exercises.The first watch list is to be established by 14 September 2014 and may contain up to 10 substances, which are to include three pharmaceutical substances (Diclofenac, 17-beta-estradiol (E2) and 17-alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2)). The watch list is to be updated every 2 years. A continuous watch list monitoring period for any individual substance may not exceed four years.

Directive 2008/105/EC also provides for Member States to establish mixing areas, where the EQS 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 district, Member States must establish an inventory of emissions, discharges and losses of all substances identified in the Directive. On the basis of this inventory, the Commission must verify by 2018 whether progress is being made towards the objectives of gradually reducing pollution from priority substances and of ceasing or phasing out emissions, discharges and losses of priority hazardous substances.

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 EQS applicable to water. The WFD requires Member States to monitor concentrations of the priority substances and eight other pollutants in water bodies. The EQS must be respected in order to achieve good surface water chemical status.

Compliance with the EQS should benefit both the European public and the environment. It should, inter alia, reduce the costs of treating surface waters used for drinking water production, and improve the health of organisms living in these waters and of livestock drinking these waters.



Entry into force

Deadline for transposition in the Member States

Official Journal

Directive 2008/105/EC



OJ L 348 of 24.12.2008

Amending act

Entry into force

Deadline for transposition in the Member States

Official Journal

Directive 2013/39/EU



OJ L 226 of 24.8.2013


Commission Directive 2009/90/EC of 31 July 2009 laying down, pursuant to Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, technical specifications for chemical analysis and monitoring of water status.

In this Directive, minimum performance criteria for analytical methods, in particular as regards limits of quantification in relation to the relevant EQS, are specified.

Directive 2006/118/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 December 2006 on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration.

Like Directive 2008/105/EC, this Directive is a daughter directive of the WFD. It sets quality standards for some chemical pollutants in groundwaters and requires Member States to consider setting threshold values for certain other pollutants.

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 explained that it preferred to leave the adoption of specific measures concerning surface water to the Member States on the grounds of efficacy, flexibility and cost. It considered 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 proposed several measures, including amendment of the IPPC Directive and the Pesticides Directive (which have since been replaced by the Industrial Emissions Directive and the Plant Protection Products Regulation), 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).

Last updated: 08.04.2014