Going against the flow – Introduction and Part 1 (5/2021)


Introduction and Part 1 (video and text) for 3 €

Part 2 for free: The sad state of the Union

IN 2017, I COMPLETED AN INVESTIGATION ON THE QUALITY of surface and underground waters across the European Union (EU). I published it on ventdouxprod. I focused on two things:

  1. EU and French laws pertaining to water quality.

  2. Water management on various geographic scale (EU, France, river basin districts, etc.), with a focus on the Artois-Picardie river basin district in northern France (20,000 square kilometers and 4.7 million people).

Why go back on this issue four years later? Mostly because the EU promised to review its major directive on water quality by 2020: the Water framework directive passed in 2000 that all EU member States have to abide by.

I have other incentives to go back on this issue. New data are available about the state of surface and underground waters. Another reason has to do with the ever growing importance of water resources as populations grow, pressures on water increase in countless watersheds and global warming intensifies. In Europe, water quality in our rivers and groundwater, as well as the evolution of water law, tell us almost everything about our economic and political systems, about our relationships with our environment and others. We can simply look at water and its law to understand where we are as human communities.

This investigation and video series are based on a variety of sources, most of which are legal, scientific and journalistic. You can assess their relevance in the text attached to each video.

Content of Part 1

I. Basic concepts

  • I.1. Water bodies [0mn07s on the youtube video]
  • I.2. The status of water bodies [1mn07s]
  • I.3. Criticizing the assessment [3mn55s]
  • I.4. Ecological potential [7mn26s]


I. Basic concepts

I.1. Water bodies

Within the European Union, when we talk about water management, we talk about water bodies and river basin districts. There are six of them in France. Each river basin district like Artois-Picardie includes several and often dozens of water bodies, and up to several hundred of them. A surface water body can be all or part of a river, canal or lake ; there are also coastal or transitional water bodies (waters between land and sea). A groundwater body means a volume of water in one or more aquifers. An aquifer is either a soil or a rock formation that can contain moving water.

I.2. The status of water bodies

This video series explains water quality across Europe. So I am interested in the way this quality is assessed.

Surface water bodies have a chemical status and an ecological status. In terms of chemical status, evaluators measure the concentration in water of 53 substances, including several metals, pesticides, hydrocarbons and solvents. They set a concentration threshold for each substance. When none of the 53 substances exceed their concentration thresholds, the chemical status of the water body is deemed good. If only one substance exceeds its threshold, this chemica status is considered bad (European parliament and council of the EU, 2013, annexes I and II).

The ecological status of a surface water body ranges from very good to bad. This status is obtained by measuring several elements: the concentration of nitrogen in water, phosphorus, a few metals and pesticides, as well as dissolved oxygen (physicochemical elements); the temperature, salinity and acidity of water (except near the seaside for acidity); fish, plant and invertebrate populations, notably in terms of abundance; human alterations of the water body, such as modifications of river banks and current, dams, among other elements. By comparing these elements (e.g., concentration of pollutants, wildlife population, human alterations of the water body) with the same in a similar water body with very little human impact, we obtain the ecological status (EP and CEU, 2000, annex V; EauFrance, 2020 [a]).

The chemical status of underground water bodies is based on concentration thresholds for twelve types of pollutants and up to 90 pollutants in some EU member States. When only one type of pollutant exceeds its threshold, the chemical status of the underground water body is deemed bad. For instance, the threshold for mercury is 1 µg/l; it is 0.5 µg/l for all pesticides, for lead or phosphorus; it is 50 mg/l for nitrates. When all concentration levels are below their threshold, two other conditions have to be met to reach good status: pollutants in groundwater do not prevent connected surface water bodies from reaching good status; they do not cause other problems like salt water intrusion (European parliament and council of the EU, 2014; EP and CEU, 2006, annexes I and II; EP and CEU, 2000, annex V – 2.3).

I.3. Criticizing the assessment

What could one think of the assessment of the chemical status of water bodies? According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), of the thousands of chemicals in daily use, relatively few are reported under the WFD”. The EEA’s understatement  is blatant: this agency talks about “relatively few  chemicals” when only 53 polluting substances out of several thousand are measured individually to assess the chemical status of surface water and a few dozens are taken into account for underground water. Because of this, the evaluation of the chemical status of surface water and groundwater is both very deficient and unreliable (European environment agency, 2018 [a], p.70).

On this issue, the European environment agency acknowledges that “there is a gap in knowledge at European level” about any of the thousands of polluting substances that are not assessed. This agency further admits that it does not know “whether any of these substances present a significant risk to or via the aquatic environment, either individually or in combination with other substances” (European environment agency, 2018 [a], p.52, 70).

Consequently, the evaluation of the chemical status is based on the concentration in water of a tiny minority of existing polluting substances. This concentration is measured individually for each substance. But the impact of a combination of substances on the chemical quality of water is ignored. With some sort of inappropriate or involuntary black humor, the EEA issued the following statement: “the monitoring of more substances could lead to a greater chance of failing to achieve good chemical status”. In the end, the chemical status validated by the EU is hugely overoptimistic and far superior to what it really is (European environment agency, 2018 [a], p.52, 70).

The assessment of the ecological status of surface water bodies is also flawed, perhaps to a lesser extent than that of the chemical status. That said, this ecological assessment is also overoptimistic. For instance, this assessment disregards many animal species and types of vegetation cover. In Artois-Picardie, the assessment of ecological status thus disregards the extinction of otters and beavers; it almost entirely overlooks the extreme rarity of both salmon and eels that used to be common in this region; the assessment does not show more concern for the fragmentation of old-growth forests, not to mention primary forests which are nonexistent. Old-growth forests are at least 250 years old. Yet, these different animal species and forest types contribute in a significant manner to biodiversity and food webs in aquatic ecosystems; they can even influence the physico-chemical properties of surface water (AEAP et al., 2015, p.43-44; CRPF Poitou-Charentes, 2017; Decocq, 2013; Ministère TES, 2019 [a]; ONCFS, 2019; Préfecture de la région nord, 2007, p.13-16; Veron, 1992).

I.4. Ecological potential

Let’s address another basic concept: that of ecological potential. Thanks to European legislators, the ecological status can give way to the ecological potential. In order to do that, legislators made up the category of artificial or heavily modified water body. Artificial means created by human activity; heavily modified means affected by substantial physical alterations due to human activity, such as a river replaced with a canal. The artificial or heavily modified category applies to 17 percent of European water bodies (13 percent of which are heavily modified); it applies to 44 percent of Artois-Picardie’s water bodies (European environment agency, 2018 [a], p.9; Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2015, p.47-59; EP and CEU, 2000, article 2).

The ecological potential further lowers the already deficient assessment of the ecological status. Thus, the potential allows less stringent standards in terms of abundance and diversity of aquatic fauna and flora. The ecological potential makes it possible to ignore riverbed slopes, the status of riverbanks, flow variations or ecological continuity, etc. Yet, these morphological conditions are essential for the diversity and quality of wildlife habitat (EauFrance, 2020 [b]; Etat français, 2021 [a]; EP and CEU, 2000).

Any EU member State can easily classify a water body as artificial or heavily modified. The State just has to pick and choose one of several legal justifications. Among those are the “disproportionate costs” of a non-classified water body; the threshold above which the costs are “disproportionate” is left to the discretion of the State. Other convenient justifications are available to EU member States to classify a water body as artificial or heavily modified: for example when the State considers that a non-classified water body would cause “significant adverse effects” on recreation, navigation or power generation. Through these justifications, the Water framework directive (valid in 2021) gives EU member States the right to leave thousands of water bodies mutilated (EP and CEU, 2000, article 4 and annex V).

Introduction and Part 1 (video and transcript) for 3 €


AEAP et al., 2015. Partez à la rencontre de la biodiversité – Les poissons et leurs habitats dans le bassin Artois-Picardie. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Comité de bassin Artois-Picardie, 2015. SDAGE 2016-2021 du bassin Artois-Picardie. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

CRPF Poitou-Charentes, 2017. UNE FORÊT PRODUCTRICE DE BOIS MAIS PAS SEULEMENT. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Decocq, 2013. Biodiversité et fertilité selon l’ancienneté de l’état boisé. AgroParisTech. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

EauFrance, 2020 [a]. Règles d’évaluation de l’état des eaux. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

EauFrance, 2020 [b]. Glossaire : Eaux, milieux marins et biodiversité. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Etat français, 2021 [a]. Arrêté du 25 janvier 2010 relatif aux méthodes et critères d’évaluation de l’état écologique, de l’état chimique et du potentiel écologique des eaux de surface pris en application des articles R. 212-10, R. 212-11 et R. 212-18 du code de l’environnement. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

European environment agency, 2018 [a]. European waters: Assessment of status and pressures 2018. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

European parliament and council of the EU [EP and CEU], 2014. Commission Directive 2014/80/EU of 20 June 2014 amending Annex II to Directive 2006/118/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration Text with EEA relevance. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

EP and CEU, 2013. DIRECTIVE 2013/39/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 12 August 2013 amending Directives 2000/60/EC and 2008/105/EC as regards priority substances in the field of water policy. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

EP and CEU, 2006. 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. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

EP and CEU, 2000. Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Ministère TES, 2019 [a]. Plan National d’Actions en faveur de la Loutre d’Europe (Lutra lutra), 2019-2028. Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

ONCFS, 2019. Répartition du castor sur le réseau hydrographique (ONCFS). Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Préfecture de la région nord, 2007. PLAN DE GESTION ANGUILLE DE LA FRANCEWebpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Veron, 1992. Histoire biogéographique du Castor d’Europe Castor fiber Rodentia (Mammalia)Webpage viewed on 5/26/2021

Nicolas Barbier 2021, all rights reserved