The main objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive are to achieve a good status in surface and groundwater bodies, good ecological potential and a good surface water chemical status in artificial and heavily modified water bodies. To achieve these objectives, EU member states had to issue a programme of measures and a river basin management plan for the first of three six-year planning cycles in 2009. The second programme of measures and the river basin management plan were due on December 22 2015.

National Water Management Plan 2015

On August 25 2017 – and therefore with a delay of more than a year and a half – the minister for agriculture, forestry, environment and water management published the Ordinance on the National Water Management Plan 2015. This ordinance and the underlying document, the National Water Management Plan 2015, revise and update the first National Water Management Plan 2009 and comprise both the programme of measures and the river basin management plan for the second planning cycle from 2015 to 2021, as provided for in Articles 11 and 13 of the Water Framework Directive.

While the ordinance consists of only four paragraphs and four annexes, the underlying document covers over 350 pages and several hundred pages of annexes. At its core, this comprehensive document contains:

  • a record of the present state of the Austrian surface and groundwater bodies;
  • specific objectives regarding Austrian water bodies;
  • an overview of the measures transposed since the issuance of the National Water Management Plan 2009; and
  • updated and added measures to be transposed in the 2015 to 2021 planning cycle.

While some parts of the National Water Management Plan 2015 serve only to comply with reporting duties under EU law, Chapters 5.1 (specific objectives regarding Austrian water bodies) and 6 (programme of measures) form the programme of measures as provided in Article 11 of the Water Framework Directive and are therefore legally binding on the Austrian water authorities.

Comment

In pursuing the general aim of achieving a good status in surface and groundwater bodies, good ecological potential and a good surface water chemical status in artificial and heavily modified water bodies, the specific objectives of Austrian water management planning – compared to the National Water Management Plan 2009 – rest on the following four areas:

  • the progressive reduction of synthetic and non-synthetic pollutants;
  • the progressive reduction of obstacles to achieving a good status in the hydromorphological component of the ecological status;
  • the progressive reduction of emissions of nutrients and organic substances from point sources and diffuse sources of pollution; and
  • the progressive achievement of environmental objectives regarding the chemical status of groundwater bodies.

The National Water Management Plan 2015 acknowledges that all of those objectives face serious obstacles. The specific aims of progressively achieving (a good chemical status and) a good status in the physical and chemical components of the ecological status appear to be in danger for the natural reason that diffuse sources of synthetic and non-synthetic pollutants, nutrients and organic substances are extremely difficult to locate and drain. In addition to the problem of diffuse sources of pollutants, the long renewal periods of groundwater bodies (especially in Eastern Austria) are obstacles to the achievement of a good chemical status in groundwater bodies.

The second objective concerning hydromorphological obstacles to the good ecological status or potential such as transverse structures or minimum flow rates faces not only natural, but also economic problems. While Parliament agreed to subventions amounting to €140 million for the transposal of the programme of measures foreseen in the National Water Management Plan 2009, the 2015 plan lacks corresponding funding.

Further, as the minister for agriculture, forestry, environment and water management released the National Water Management Plan 2015 only in August 2017 (thereby shortening the second planning cycle by one quarter) and considering the upcoming elections and the following coalition negotiations, it remains doubtful whether such funding instruments will be implemented in time. When also taking into account the low market price of electricity and the universal shortages of municipal and water board budgets, it becomes clear that many of those obstacles – especially retaining walls for small hydropower plants – will likely remain impassable or lack minimum flow rates in 2021.

In short, the first update and review of Austria's national water management planning instrument has revealed that the objectives of the Water Framework Directive will be achieved neither to their full extent nor in a timely manner (see pages 123 and 151). Nonetheless, the National Water Management Plan 2015 is a useful and comprehensive document that contains extensive information for all stakeholders and sets out the next steps to achieve the ultimate goal of restoring Austria's water bodies.