Guide to the Water Framework Directive

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) is an important piece of environmental legislation which aims to improve our water quality. It applies to rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters.

The Water Framework Directive was agreed by all individual EU member states in 2000, and its first cycle ran from 2009 – 2015. The Directive runs in 6-year cycles, so the second cycle runs from 2016 – 2021.

Having one framework for water quality for all 4,933 waterbodies in Ireland, and all those in Europe, allows us to compare our results. By doing this, we can see what works, which helps us to make sure all our surface and ground water achieves at least ‘good’ status, and no deterioration occurs.

Rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters can be awarded one of five statuses:

  • High
  • Good
  • Moderate
  • Poor
  • Bad


Groundwater has just two statuses – Good and Poor.

Status is assessed under the following headings:

  • Biological Quality
    • Fish
    • Benthic Invertebrates (These are small animals that live at the bottom of a waterbody or in sediment, and have no backbone)
    • Aquatic Plants
  • Hydromorphological Quality – this is how a river flows, and can be affected by river bank structure, river continuity, or the substrate of the river bed.
  • Physical-chemical quality such as temperature, oxygenation and nutrient conditions
  • Chemical quality for specific pollutants

Assessing Status – ‘one out, all out’

An important point to note is that the rule when assessing the waters is ‘one out, all out’. In other words, if, for example, a water body is at ‘good’ status in three of the above categories, but ‘poor’ in the fourth, the entire waterbody is judged to be poor. It is the lowest result that determines status.

Public Participation

A key part of the Water Framework Directive is Article 14, which requires all member states to engage with the people who live, work and play in a catchment. To do this, it is important to understand how local communities live in their catchments and use their water. Therefore, it is critical that local communities are involved in management and decision making related to protecting and, where necessary, improving their water resources.

Ultimately, meeting the sometimes narrow objectives of the WFD is not the aim – the real goal is to help communities to protect and improve a beautiful and diverse landscape with accessible healthy waterways that are productively used to support livelihoods, habitats and rich wildlife.

The WFD can be a powerful tool in helping to achieve this goal.

What does ‘good ecological status’ mean, and why does it matter?

Recent articles about the Water Framework Directive

Who is involved?

Quite simply, everyone in Ireland has a role to play. This can be from something as simple as making sure you don’t pollute your local stream, or a local community working together to establish a Rivers Trust to enhance the rivers and lakes in their area, to a Government Department or Agency helping a Minister implement a new policy to help protect and enhance all our waterbodies.

This website has been developed and is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is a collaboration between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Local Authority Waters and Communities Office.


Local Authority Waters Programme

The Local Authority Waters Programme coordinates the efforts of local authorities and other public bodies in the implementation of the River Basin Management Plan, and supports local community and stakeholder involvement in managing our natural waters, for everyone’s benefit.


Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is responsible for coordinating the monitoring, assessment and reporting on the status of our 4,829 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives and measures for each.


Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government

The Department is responsible for making sure that the right policies, regulations and resources are in place to implement the Water Framework Directive, and developing a River Basin Management Plan and Programme of Measures that will be implemented after public consultation and sign off by the Minister.