Ecostat Working Group, or the Water Framework Directive from behind the scenes


In our articles, the topic of criteria for classifying the ecological status of waters often comes up. Have you ever wondered where they come from? Who develops them, why and on what basis? The institution that creates guidelines and methodologies for assessing the ecological status of surface waters in the European Union is the Ecostat Working Group (Ecological Status Working Group), established under the European Commission. It is not widely known, which makes it sometimes confused with Eurostat. As an expert who has been involved in the work of this group for more than a decade, I decided to introduce the scope of its work to the readers of Water Matters.

Why the inconsistencies, or how the Water Framework Directive was created

The Water Framework Directive, like most legislation, was prepared by a group of experts, then approved by officials and passed by parliamentarians. In its design, one can find many elements taken from earlier directives that the WFD replaced. During the work on the document, the visions and arguments of different factions clashed, and the result is often a compromise. In subsequent stages of work, the solutions developed by one team were modified by the next, hence the final form does not necessarily give a coherent and logical system.

For example, according to the original assumption, biological indicators were to be decisive in assessing the ecological status of waters, and only they were to be assigned classes on a five-point scale. Physicochemical and hydromorphological indicators were to be considered only if the highest biological class was achieved. Thus, the role of supporting elements was only to verify whether or not the ecological status is close to reference conditions.

Eventually, however, there were expert voices indicating that biogenic or aerobic conditions are equally important and should be taken into account in the classification. This demand was only partially addressed. Hence, the criteria for hydromorphological elements are treated rather perfunctorily in the WFD, distinguishing only two classes (the original rule that they can only modify the highest rating resulting from the very good condition of biological elements was left in place), and for physicochemical elements, in addition to the very good class, a good class was introduced, leaving the other states as “below good”, without further differentiation.

The WFD’s definitions of ecological status classes themselves are close to a tautology and can be reduced to the principle that very good ecological status is a status that is very good, good status is slightly worse but still good, moderate status deviates from very good status to a moderate degree, and so on. Despite the large expansion of the annex on ecological status, the most important provision in practice is that it will be determined by the values of ecological quality ratios(EQRs), and these will be set by member countries and then intercalibrated among them.

It is also worth noting that the Water Framework Directive is a rather heterogeneous document. In some places it is very vague, in keeping with its framework nature, while in others (especially in the annexes) it is so detailed that its regulations end up in regulations, not laws. The framework part refers more than once to the so-called “framework”. common sense, which unfortunately proves to be an ineffective criterion when there is a need to agree on a common interpretation of a provision in a group of member countries.

Why the confusion, or how ecological status relates to chemical status and vice versa

Hydrobiology specialists, who often deal with issues of hydrochemistry of nutrients, and much less frequently (or not at all) with industrial pollution, had an important contribution to the creation of the directive. Hydrochemists, on the other hand, rarely deal with issues of hydrobiology. Hence, the solutions for groups of physicochemical parameters in the ecological status assessment and chemical parameters in the chemical status assessment are strongly inconsistent. Hydromorphology also received less attention than other elements of the assessment.

The gap between the experts on the hydrobiology and related hydrochemistry, as well as experts in the field. pollutants, familiar with hydrobiology mainly in an ecotoxicological context, can also be seen in unclear records of the interrelationship of ecological and chemical status or pollutants that did not make it to the list of priority substances. Some records indicate that these are separate entities, while others suggest that these pollutants affect not only the chemical but also the ecological status.

Finally, the parameter lists for ecological status included pollutants defined as basin-specific, which in almost all aspects resemble pollutants considered in the classification of chemical status. This will probably be changed in the upcoming revision of the WFD, and chemical status will henceforth be conditioned by all pollutants, not just priority substances. In contrast, the physicochemical elements of ecological status will include only those substances that are key to ecosystem functioning, not pollutants.

Assistance package, or CIS Working Groups

The Water Framework Directive was passed on October 23, 2000, and came into force on December 22 of the same year. It was obvious to experts from the beginning that it did not contain all the aspects necessary for proper implementation. On the day the directive was passed, an informal meeting of water directors from member countries and Norway outlined a joint implementation strategy ( Common Implementation Strategy , CIS), finally adopted by the European Commission on May 2, 2001. It established 10 basic topics for the first phase of the WFD implementation process, which were to be addressed by expert working groups. The working groups were set up between 2000 and 2001, with numbers corresponding to each issue, and the numbering does not follow the chronology of group appointments, and in the case of issue 2.9 is repeated.

At the end of 2001. The following groups were active:

2.1 – IMPRESS (on pressures and their impact);

2.2 – HMWB (for heavily modified waters);

2.3 – REFCOND (for reference conditions);

2.4 – COAST (for coastal and transitional waters);

2.5 – Intercalibration (for intercalibration);

2.6 – WATECO (for economic analysis);

2.7 – Monitoring;

2.9 – Public Participation;

2.9 – Planning Processes;

3.1 – GIS (for geographic spatial information).

The main task of the groups is to develop guidance and guidelines for interpreting the provisions of the WFD. However, at the end of the first phase of the directive’s implementation, it became clear that further work was needed to resolve all uncertainties. However, the activities of all the groups were not continued, but new, less numerous ones were established on their foundations.


In March 2002. A group for the development of the country’s economy was formed. criteria for the designation of water bodies, while in November of the same year, the Group on Water and Environmental Protection (GATP) launched a study on the designation of water bodies. ecological status. At the time, it was called Working Group 2A Ecological status – Ecostat for short. Its main purpose was to summarize the work of the REFCOND, COAST, HMWB and Monitoring groups and develop guidelines for water assessments. Fulfilling this task, however, did not end Ecostat’s work.

The group took on the following tasks, and successive terms of office of the Commission extend its mandate so that it continues to operate today, but under a changed designation (it is now Working Group C). Alongside it are groups: A (Chemicals), B (Data Information Sharing), D (Floods), E (Groundwater), F (Water Reuse) and G (Economics). The latter has the status of an ad-hoc thematic group (ATG). Such groups are set up on the assumption that they will deal with one topic and end their activities, unlike groups like Ecostat, which are permanent by design. For example, the group for the groundwater was established in 2004. as Working Group C Groundwater and continues to operate today (now as Group E).

Ecostat’s ongoing task is to oversee work on intercalibration of biological indicators of water quality. Although the process was scheduled for 18 months according to the WFD, it actually took several years, and methodological developments and changes in the environment mean that formerly intercalibrated methods may need updating and another intercalibration. Intercalibration of physicochemical and hydromorphological indicators is not required by law, but Ecostat is overseeing work to harmonize a common approach to these indicators.

In its first year of operation, Ecostat met twice, and so a custom was established that continues to this day. Sometimes additional thematic workshops are organized, such as those co-organized by another working group. There is a relatively high level of contact with groups on the implementation of the RDSM, especially on the RDSM. good condition (Working Group GES), as these are intersecting issues. In contrast, surprisingly little with the Chemicals group responsible for similar water chemistry issues. Members of both groups at the same time can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Initially, Ecostat meetings were held at the JRC headquarters in Ispra, possibly at the EU complex in Brussels, but for the past dozen years or so they have been located in member countries. I organized one such meeting on March 16-17, 2016 at the headquarters of the then Ministry of Environment in Warsaw. They are currently organized in hybrid mode.

CIS manuals to support WFD interpretation

The work of the groups has resulted in guides to a common understanding of the provisions of the WFD to the extent consistent with the subject of a given CIS project, most of which were published in 2003. Guides to interpreting the law, by definition, cannot introduce completely new content, so often in practice their content is almost a re-copy of the legal act. In contrast, CIS manuals contain a lot of the authors’ own input, and legal and jurisprudential language is kept to a minimum.

Some issues are arranged in tabular order, while others are accompanied by illustrative illustrations, which the directive does not include. These guides are published with the caveat that they are not a source of law or even an official position of the European Commission, but in practice their provisions are taken as the most appropriate interpretation of the WFD. This is due to, among other things. from a multi-stage process for their approval – first by a working group, then by aStrategic Coordination Group made up of senior officials from member countries, and finally by the European Commission.

From the point of view of the classification of ecological status and, indirectly, ecological potential, the most important manual is theOverall approach to the classification of ecological status and ecological potential of waters, just developed by the Ecostat group. About 50 authors participated in its creation, including Dr. Hanna Soszka of the Institute of Environmental Protection.

In truth, twenty years after its publication, there have been some changes, but they are not so great as to entail the need to update it. Ultimately, 38 manuals have been produced to date (August 2023) to support the proper interpretation of various aspects of the WFD, although more are still being written, including those created by the Chemicals or Groundwater groups, and a set of them can be found here. In addition to these, other documents relevant to the implementation of the WFD are published. One of the Ecostat Group’s more important products, which has not become an official CIS guide, is the 2019 Good Practice Guide for Setting Environmental Quality Standards for Nutrients. along with the attachments.

Who is building the Ecostat?

Various types of experts participate in the work of the working groups. The majority are those nominated by member countries. They may be water or environmental administration officials or scientists. The phrase “member countries” is a simplification, because from the very beginning the WFD was adopted not only by the European Union, but also by Norway. EU candidate and cooperating countries such as Iceland, Turkey, North Macedonia and Switzerland can also delegate their own representatives.

Since Ecostat is an advisory body to the European Commission, its work is overseen by a representative of the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs. The Environmental Commission (as of spring 2023, it is Diar Isid). Key is the participation of EC representatives in the form of Joint Research Center (JRC) experts. The European Environment Agency is also delegating its representative. Non-union organizations interested in the environment and water management, such as WWF, Sed-Net, as well as representatives of the hydropower industry or the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), can also be associate members.

From the EU exit in 2020. The UK does not post its own representatives, but specialists from the country are still employed by the EC as independent experts. Representatives from other working groups also appear at the meetings, including those related to the Framework Directive on the Environment. Marine Strategy Directorate (MSDR).

Currently, the number of Ecostat members and observers is so large (close to a hundred people) and the topics so diverse that the work is carried out in thematic subgroups. They are mainly attended by experts, not necessarily Ecostat members themselves. For example, much of Ecostat’s proprietary work is currently being done by the Ecostat subgroup. Harmonization of ecological status criteria for physical and chemical elements. The expert delegated by Poland to work in this group is not formally a member of Ecostat.

Poland’s leading representative in Ecostat is a delegate from the Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection. Since 2013. I have the pleasure of holding this position, succeeding Przemyslaw Gruszecki, currently a director at PGW Wody Polskie. At various times, supporting members have been representatives of the KZGW (now within the structure of the Polish Waters) or the ministry responsible for water management (now the Ministry of Infrastructure).

At the intersection of administration and science

Working groups such as Ecostat are a specific institution operating at the intersection of applied science and government. As a rule, hydrobiologists, hydrochemists or hydrotechnicians participate in the work of thematic subgroups. This applies, for example, to intercalibration work on biological indicators of water quality, even if it is more work on data analysis than classical hydrobiology. However, these works are approved by national representatives delegated from the government – ministries or water or environmental agencies, such as the GIOŚ.

The two groups need to communicate. So often the members are people who (like me) went from academia to administration. On the other hand, scientists employed at institutes involved in implementation research, such as IOŚ-PIB or IMGW-PIB, must be more familiar with the world of administration than typical representatives of academia. Ecostat is a working group whose work determines the interpretation of legal provisions and administrative procedures, but like few bodies of its kind, it is largely influenced by representatives of the scientific world, especially aquatic ecology. As a member of such a body, I hope that this cooperation brings good results.

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