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Reference conditions within the Water Framework Directive. Should water quality be measured against a static condition?

Sophie Carler and Axel Save

This report is also available in Swedish.


By 2027 at the latest, Europe’s waters must have achieved a good ecological and chemical status, as a result of implementing the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD). Under the current application of WFD, a static reference condition is used for assessing the quality of ground and surface waters. The reference condition, according to the Directive, corresponds to the quality of water in an “undisturbed state”.

In view of the future review of the WFD and after many comments in the debate from both researchers and government agencies, we now question the suitability of basing the fulfilment of the obligations under the Directive on a static reference condition.

This work aims to answer two questions. Firstly, what, in practical terms is an “undisturbed state”? Secondly, is such a state really desirable? The work here includes a summary of publicly available and academic material with associated analyses.

It can be affirmed that scientific articles that concern the WFD and the relevant reference conditions are few. Of the available material, five articles have been analysed in detail; these have been selected as exemplifying the particular challenges and problems which the academic community has registered in respect of the WFD’s system of reference conditions.

We draw the conclusion – as things stand at present – that there is a lack of consensus about what can actually be considered to be an “undisturbed state”; the researchers, moreover, consider it impossible to define such a state in scientific terms. The material summarised here clearly illuminates the benefits of a more function-oriented viewpoint of the ecosystem, where a holistic perspective enables an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable management of water resources. A sustainable ecosystem is not necessarily synonymous with a “natural” ecosystem.