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Water Resources Management

, Volume 32, Issue 15, pp 5115–5149 | Cite as

Environmental Flows Under the WFD Implementation

  • Vanessa Ramos
  • Nuno Formigo
  • Rodrigo Maia
Article

Abstract

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the first piece of European environmental legislation addressing hydromorphological modifications and impacts on water bodies. Accordingly, in those water bodies where the hydromorphological pressures are having an impact on the ecological status, action is needed to achieve WFD objectives. Environmental flows appeared as one of the answers to this challenge. Due to their importance, Member States (MSs) have been looking to integrate ecological flows in the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) and Programmes of Measures (PoMs). More than seventeen years after the WFD adoption, this study aims to provide a systematic review of the use of environmental flows within the process of WFD implementation and their contribution to the achievement of environmental objectives. In order to achieve the goals of the study, a special analysis was done using: i) the WFD official documentation reporting the progress of WFD and environmental flows definition and implementation (such as the CIS Guidance n° 31), as well as, ii) the answers to key questions addressed to EU MSs representatives involved in the implementation of environmental flows. These enabled us to perceive how this topic has been addressed in MSs. Based on the gathered information the authors assessed whether a change in the environmental flows’ situation, between the 1st and 2nd RBMPs, has occurred by each MS, or whether progress on environmental flows assessments has been made. Furthermore, this study also highlights some MSs representatives comments related with the role of the Guidance n°31 and some relevant information related with the 3rd RBMPs. Even though an evolution on environmental flows assessments can be perceived, with an increase in MSs defining and incorporating environmental flows within the 2nd RBMPs and in the complexity of the conducted approaches, there is still a long way to go. Namely, it could be highlighted that more efforts are required for the: i) implementation of environmental flows and the monitoring of its effects in the water bodies status, ii) development of a verifiable link between environmental flows and biological indicators.

Keywords

Environmental flows Water Framework Directive European Member States 

1 Introduction

Water managers around the world, pressed by stakeholders and water policies, are increasingly aware of the importance of preventing freshwater ecosystems degradation, since freshwater ecosystems support people through the provision of ecosystem services (Acreman and Ferguson 2010; Acreman et al. 2014a). Amongst others, environmental flows appear as a possible answer to this challenge. A globally and widely used definition for describing environmental flows is “the quantity, timing and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems” (Brisbane Declaration 2007). This definition recognizes and highlights the importance of temporal flow variability to sustain structure and functions of riverine ecosystems. Therefore, within this concept, the link between hydrology and ecological condition has a key role.

Environmental flow definition has been evolving throughout the time, based on scientific knowledge and debate. Initially, environmental flows (or ecological flows) were usually defined as minimum flows, because they were considered the limiting factor to achieve a healthy ecosystem (Acreman et al. 2014a). In the 1980s, the scientific community recognised that not only minimum flows dictate the structure and functions of riverine ecosystems (Bunn and Arthington 2002), but also that the temporal patterns of flows are fundamental (Arthington 2012). The idea is that too much flow in the wrong period of the year might bring negative consequences similar to having too little flow (Acreman et al. 2014b).

Even though some scientific advances have been perceived, namely related with the definition of flow-ecology relationships (i.e. between water flows and ecosystem condition), attempts to implement environmental flows have raised several questions, namely who should decide the target condition of the ecosystem (Poff et al. 2010; Acreman et al. 2014a).

In the European Union, all water bodies must achieve at least a good water status/potential (EC 2000). This goal was introduced with the adoption of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) one of the most important and ambitious pieces of European Environmental legislation to date (Boeuf and Fritsch 2016). The Directive, implemented within each European Member State through six-year recurring management cycles (MCs), defines the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) and the associated Programme of Measures (PoMs) (EC 2017a) as key tools for implementation and achievement of environmental objectives.

The WFD does not explicitly refer the term environmental flow (or ecological flow), although it expresses that action is needed in situations where hydromorphological pressures are having an impact on the ecological status, that being an obstacle to achieve WFD objectives (EC 2012a). In 2012, a relevant year as corresponding to the mid-term assessment of the WFD implementation, the European Commission (EC 2012b) highlighted the need to “put quantitative water management on a much more solid foundation, namely the identification of the ecological flow, i.e., the amount of water required for the aquatic ecosystem to continue to thrive and provide the services we rely upon”. Fundamental to this is the recognition that water quality and quantity are intimately related within the concept of ‘good status’ (EC 2012a, b, c, d). Difficulties arise since, on one hand, WFD does not specify the measures to be applied by each country (related for example with maximum abstraction rates or flow releases from dams) and, on the other hand, each MS has its own tools and data for water management (Acreman and Ferguson 2010). In addition, “there is no EU definition of ecological flow, nor a common understanding of how it should be calculated, even though these are preconditions for its consistent application”. To address this gap, the EC proposed, within a CIS (Common Implementation Strategy) working group, the development of a Guidance Document on ecological flows implementation (EC 2012c, 2015a, b).

In this context, the main goal of this study is to perceive how European Member States have been dealing with the challenge of environmental flows within the WFD implementation. In order to achieve this goal, it was necessary to assess: i) the procedures followed by each of the MSs to incorporate environmental flows within the 1st RBMPs and 2nd RBMPs (highlighting key aspects for that), ii) how the inclusion of environmental flows has been evolving in the context of the RBMPs, iii) how the Member States are paving the way for the next RBMPs’ cycle, namely considering the information provided in the Guidance document. Those assessments were performed based on information obtained from: i) official documentation published by the EC, ii) the contributions of the WFD CIS Working Group Ecological Status (WG ECOSTAT) Member States contact points in response to the questionnaires developed under the study herein presented.

2 The Water Framework Directive – Key Milestones and Documents

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) establishes a set of coordinated objectives to be accomplished, in a specific timeframe (Wilby et al. 2006). Figure 1, points out and synthesizes some of the key milestones of the WFD implementation, in some way relevant to frame the issue of environmental flows. The WFD (EC 2000) rules are due to be implemented by the current 28 European Union Member States (plus Norway, which is implementing the WFD under a specific timetable agreed pursuant to the Agreement on the European Economic Area, EEA) (EC 2017b).
Fig. 1

Synthesis of key milestones and relevant documents within the implementation of the WFD (and environmental flows)

The river basin management planning process is framed on a six-year revolving actions and review cycle, on which the River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) and the accompanying Programme of Measures (PoMs) are key instruments for the implementation of the WFD and the achievement of environmental objectives (EC 2017a, b; Maia 2017). The RBMPs (except for the first cycle) are a major outcome of the previous implementation cycle. The monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of the planned and implemented PoMs are crucial to link one planning cycle to the next. In fact, beginning in 2009, three river basin MCs, with a six years period, were delineated to meet WFD environmental objectives: the first one ended in 2015; the (current) second one, ends in 2021; the third, is due to end in 2027. In fact, under the WFD, MSs were aimed to reach, in 2015 (the end of the 1st MC), the “good status” for all water bodies, except for situations where MSs rightly invoked a deadline extension or a case of exception. Nevertheless, the achievement of WFD main goals, in 2015, was proven to be hardly achievable by MSs. In fact, following the end of the 1st MC, it was possible to perceive that, regarding all surface water bodies in the EU, deadline extensions had been granted to a significant proportion of water bodies (40%) as well as the achievement of “less stringent objectives” (19%) had been authorized (EC 2012a; Boeuf et al. 2016). In fact, in 2012, according to the EC, 53% of EU water bodies were expected to reach good status by 2015 (EC 2012a, c, d; EEA 2012). Moreover, in 2015, by the end of the 1st MC, it was estimated that the number of surface water bodies in “good” state had only increased by 10% compared to 2009 (beginning of the 1st MC) (van Rijswick and Backes 2015). Now, MSs have the chance to achieve this goal at least in 2021, or, at the latest, by 2027, which is the final deadline to meet the WFD objectives (EC 2000, 2017a). Nevertheless (and surprisingly), within the 2nd MC, which is currently in place, the number of exemptions is likely to increase, what may reflect that the PoMs implemented in the 1st MC have not been successfully chosen and/or planned (WRc 2015; Boeuf et al. 2016). That possibly also justifies that, even though, as previously referred, the term environmental flows is not explicitly used within the Directive, this topic has been gaining importance and recognition within the WFD implementation, being accepted as a key measure for restoring and managing river ecosystems. Thus, one of the measures needed to restore or maintain good ecological status, helping MSs to achieve WFD environmental objectives (Acreman and Ferguson 2010; EC 2012b; Acreman et al. 2014a). In fact, hydrological modifications are recognised as having an impact on the physical habitat, making environmental objectives unlikely to be met where substantial flow regime alterations occur due to the potential effect on biology (Acreman and Ferguson 2010).

Considering the main goals of this paper, a special attention was due to the official documentation provided by the EU, namely concerning the evaluation of the progress of WFD implementation, at specific periods, in the context of the reporting requirements defined in article 18 of the WFD. Four implementation reports (IRs) have been published up to now, considering some of the most important WFD milestones, and a special attention was dedicated, in this study, to the 3rd and 4rd IRs.

The 3rd IR (EC 2012a, c, d), published by the European Commission in November 2012, was dedicated to the review of progress in the implementation of WFD based on information reported by MSs, including an assessment of the 1st RBMPs and also, recommendations for the 2nd RBMPs. In 2012, the European Commission published a document, regarding WFD implementation that was quite relevant for environmental flows: the “Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources”, hereafter referred as “Water Blueprint” (EC 2012b). This document “outlines actions” with the long-term aim to ensure the sustainability of all activities that have an impact on water, helping to achieve the environmental goals of WFD through the identification of obstacles and solutions to overcome them. The main goal is to ensure that people, the economy and the environment have sufficient quantity of good quality water available, recognizing that water quality and quantity are intimately linked with the concept of “good status”. With this document, the importance of an EU-wide acknowledgement of the environmental/ecological flows role is enhanced: “To this end, the ecological flow is necessary to support the ecological status and ensure water availability for different uses”.

In 2015, the 4th IR was published by the Commission based on conclusions from several reports and assessments: i) the 3rd IR, ii) MS interim reports on the progress in implementation of the programmes of measures, iii) information from bilateral meetings between the Commission and MS. Those sources of information provided an overview of the strengths and weaknesses, on the different MSs, concerning the implementation of WFD. Based on that, the Commission made specific recommendations for each Member State in the 4th IR (EC 2015c, d). The main goal of these recommendations was to assist MS in identifying the areas that should be improved by each Member State in the 2nd WFD cycle. It was expected that the limitations detected in the 1st MC could be worked out and improved in the final version of the 2nd cycle RBMPs (expected to be approved also, in 2015, in December).

Furthermore, it should be highlighted that during the timeframe of the implementation of the WFD, a wide and common policy for WFD enforcement has been the development of a common strategy to support the European Union (EU) MSs during its implementation. The common implementation strategy (CIS) is a cooperative and open process established in 2001 and led by the Water Directors of the MSs and the Commission with the participation of relevant stakeholders. CIS participants are gathered in different working groups dedicated to key aspects/challenges of WFD implementation, helping to gather best practices and boost mutual learning (EC 2017c, Maia 2017). Based on the goals of this paper, emphasis was given to the Guidance document n° 31, developed with the goal to support a shared understanding of ecological flows and ways to integrate them in the RBMPs (EC 2015a, b).

2.1 Guidance Document n° 31 – Ecological Flows in the Implementation of the Water Framework Directive (2015)

As previously referred, the European Commission proposed the development of a guidance document regarding ecological flows, having in mind that the recommendations provided could be applied in the 2nd and 3rd RBMPs.

A CIS Working Group presented the guidance document, in 2015, with the main goal to support a shared understanding of ecological flows (usually referred throughout the guidance document as eflows) and ways to take those into consideration in the RBMPs. The document (EC 2015a, b) covers several aspects, such as: 1) a working definition of ecological flows in the context of WFD, 2) steps in the WFD cycle where eflows are relevant, and 3) lessons learned from case studies that have been developed in several EU-MS. Nevertheless, the document highlights that it “does not offer a full protocol for the implementation of eflows in water bodies, nor is it intended to lead to uniform implementation of eflows”. In fact, MS are encouraged to “make best use of the shared understanding of eflows in all steps of the WFD process” while considering site-specific eflows implementation conditions (namely the national or regional legislation, specific environmental values or ecosystem services).

Framed in the WFD context the guidance document adopted as a definition for ecological flow: “an hydrological regime consistent with the achievement of the environmental objectives of the WFD in natural surface water bodies as mentioned in Article 4(1).” It should be emphasized that, within this definition, according to Article 4(1), the environmental objectives refer to: 1) non-deterioration of the existing status, 2) achievement of good ecological status in natural surface water bodies, 3) compliance with any standards and objectives for protected areas. The definition provided is referred as a “working definition of ecological flows” that does not cover the ecological flows that should be implemented in heavily modified water bodies and/or on those qualified for an exemption. For those water bodies, ecological requirements “are to be derived taking into account technical feasibility and socio-economic impacts on the uses that would be affected by the implementation of ecological flows”. Throughout the document several recommendations are provided on how to improve water management, considering flow requirements from the river ecosystems, in order to achieve environmental objectives. Those recommendations aim to promote the consideration of eflows in the WFD planning process (although, in accordance with the information presented, the Guidance document is not intended to give binding standards on eflows). In the Guidance document, it is highlighted that in those water bodies affected by hydrological alterations, eflows should be considered in many implementation steps, particularly in the WFD planning process concerning to the: i) identification of significant pressures; ii) assessment of the risk of failing environmental objectives; iii) design of the monitoring programme; iv) construction of a cost-effective programme of measures to achieve environmental objectives. In other words, the consideration of eflows, should be incorporated in the planning process and not considered as a separate one.

Regarding recommendations supporting the implementation of ecological flows in EU Member States some key messages were provided by the Guidance document (EC 2015a, b), in relation to some key aspects (Table 1).
Table 1

Recommendations supporting the implementation of ecological flows in EU MSs

In terms of:

Key messages

Legal framework

• “consideration of ecological flows should be included in national frameworks, including binding ones as appropriate, referring clearly to the different components of the natural flow regime (and not only to minimum flow) and the necessity to link their definition to biological requirements according to the objectives of WFD and Birds and Habitat Directives”;

• should “include means to ensure effective implementation of ecological flows, e.g. binding the strategic planning for development of impacting uses (e.g., irrigation, hydropower, navigation, flood control…) and the permitting process”.

• “should provide a clear basis for issuing and regulating water use, allocations, water rights and permits: in all cases eflows should be included in the RBMPs. These national frameworks, that consider regional and local specificities, will constitute an important asset to ensure the achievement of EU environmental objectives, as well as, the resolution of conflicts over water uses”.

Hydrological regime in ecological status assessment

• MSs should urgently develop biological methods that provide metrics more specifically sensitive to hydrological pressures considering the relationship among hydrology, morphology and the biological impacts;

• for those locations where severe hydrological alteration is noticed, MSs should trigger appropriate monitoring (operational or investigative) and action to mitigate the impact in a significant way. The classification of a water body, affected by significant hydrological pressures, using only biological methods not properly sensitive to hydrological pressures may result in an overestimation of the ecological status.

Assessment of hydrological pressures and impacts

• the significant pressures altering the flow regime (which result in an impact on biology and may consequently contribute to the failure of environmental objectives) should be carefully assessed;

• ecological impacts of hydrological alterations and their relevance should be assessed with biological indicators built on monitoring data that are specifically sensitive to hydrological alterations;

• for those situations where available biological metrics do not detect hydrological pressures or those metrics are not capable to reveal the contribution of those hydrological pressures to the overall impact on the water status: “the evaluation of the significant impact of hydrological pressure can rely to a large extent on an assessment of hydrological alterations of the river flow” – since the “hydrological regime is well acknowledged as a key driver for river ecosystems quality”.

Monitoring programmes

• for a correct definition and efficient implementation of environmental flows a substantial amount of hydrological data is very important (nevertheless, modelling approaches may to some extent complement the lack of monitoring data);

• in order to estimate the deviation between the current and the natural flow regime it is important to collect plentiful hydrological information (which will help to quantitative and qualitative estimates of hydrological alterations and their impact on habitat/morphology and biology);

• the operational hydrological monitoring should be established considering the surface and groundwater hydrological pressures, with a priority to those locations where action is necessary. It should be highlighted that establishing an effective hydrological monitoring network often requires conciliation between the ideal solution and the requirement for cost-effectiveness. In the Mediterranean basins, monitoring requirements, and thus costs, are expected to be higher compared to central and northern European basins, due to high spatial and temporal variability of the hydrological regime (as a result of geological, hydrogeological and climatic factors) that increases modelling uncertainties;

• “the integrated monitoring of hydrological, morphological and biological quality elements will enable the estimation of the effectiveness of flow restoration actions as part of the programme of measures” – in other words, in the long-term, the cumulative collection of hydrological data from an effectively established monitoring network, in combination with the monitoring of the ecosystems response through specific habitat/hydromorphological and biological quality elements will enable more accurate eflows estimations, providing a sufficient level of confidence on the values of the hydrological reference conditions and of changes of the ecological status over time;

• the hydrological monitoring will enable the understanding of how flow regimes are affected and evolve in the long-term.

Definition

• definition of eflows should be obtained based on technical/scientific process with no consideration of the associated socio-economic impacts. Guidance highlights that “these latter impacts should only be considered when deriving the flow regime to be implemented in HMWB or water bodies subject to an exemption, consistent with the conditions set by the WFD.”;

• the selection of the most appropriate method for environmental flow definition depends on resource availability (including. Monitoring data) and on the severity of the pressures. Purely hydrological methods may be a reasonable approach to cover the whole river basin; whereas a more detailed approach will be needed to take specific actions”;

• the assessment of the gap between the current flow regime and the ecological flow regime is crucial to inform the design of the programme of measures, for those situations where hydrological alterations are likely to prevent the achievement of environmental objectives.

Public participation and effective interaction with stakeholders

• public participation and effective interaction with stakeholders, from politicians to local users, and the ability to communicate the need for ecological flows among those whose interests are affected, should be developed in all the phases of the WFD planning process, from its design up to the implementation plan and effective implementation follow-up, ensuring that the participation process continues in subsequent planning cycles;

• participation process on eflows should be a way to improve the definition of the measures required for their achievement and to facilitate the implementation of those measures;

• participation should in no case serve as a tool to negotiate the definition of ecological flows and the value of their different components for the satisfaction of all demands.

3 Research Design

3.1 Introduction

Firstly, in order to understand how European Member States have been dealing with the challenging issue of environmental flows within the WFD implementation, an analysis of official documentation, published by the EC on the progress in the implementation of WFD was conducted. The 3rd (EC 2012a, c, d) and the 4th IR (EC 2015c, d) were evaluated, providing valuable information and enabling the evaluation of important issues related with the environmental flows approach developed over the timeframe of the 1st RBMPs, as well as, recommendations provided by the EC for the 2nd RBMPs.

Since, up to the time of this study, neither a report on the evaluation of the 2nd RBMPs, nor a more detailed description of some key issues on implementation of environmental flows, within the 1st RBMPs, was provided by the EC, the authors choose to gather information directly from EU MSs representatives involved in the implementation of environmental flows. This was done in order to gather more information and enhance knowledge about environmental flows incorporation within each Member State WFD’s implementation policy, as well as, to be able to assess the progress between RBMPs.

3.2 Gathering Information from EU MSs Representatives Involved in Environmental Flows Implementation and Evaluation of Progress in Environmental Flows Assessments

3.2.1 Questionnaire

To gather information directly from the EU MSs representatives involved in the implementation of environmental flows, the authors elaborated and used a questionnaire. The authors contacted and sent the questionnaire, to the Member States contact points of the WFD CIS Working Group Ecological Status (WG ECOSTAT), following a list provided by the Environment Water Team (Env-Water Team) of the EC, which includes thirty contacts, one for each of the 28 EU countries and two additional ones for Belgium (since the responsibilities for implementing the WFD are divided between Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels-Capital Regions). The questionnaire (available in the link: https://tinyurl.com/ycl3s44r) enabled the authors to assess, for each MS: i) if environmental flows were included in the 1st RBMPs (Question 1 – Q1), as well as in the 2nd RBMPs (Q2), and ii) key aspects of environmental flows, for both RBMPs, regarding environmental flows definition and implementation, as well as, the monitoring of their effects on ecosystems (Q2.1 to Q2.7). Table 2 presents information related with the questions included in the questionnaire, providing as well other significant information related with each question (such as, framework – relevance of the question included in the assessment).
Table 2

Key aspects of environmental flows, for both RBMPs, regarding environmental flows definition and implementation, as well as, the monitoring of their effects on ecosystems

Key aspects of environmental flows assessments, related with:

Questions

Assessment of:

Possible answers to each question

Framework (relevance) of the question included in the assessment

Definition

Q2.1

Sites selected to define environmental flows

A – Only for downstream dam’s river stretches

B – Rivers affected by different types of pressures,

C – For the whole River Basin District (i.e. for the RBD main rivers and tributaries)

Usually, this is the first step taken in an assessment of environmental flows (Arthington et al. 2006; Hirji and Davis 2009; Hamilton and Seelbach 2011; Kendy et al. 2012; Buchanan et al. 2013, EC 2014)

Q2.2

Methodologies used for the definition of environmental flows, considering the categories of environmental flows methods defined in Tharme (2003)

A – Hydrological methods,

B – Hydraulic rating methods,

C – Habitat simulation methods,

D – Holistic methods

According to Tharme (2003), four categories of environmental flows methods are recognised, each one with some advantages and disadvantages. The related categories selected to conduct the definition of environmental flows will determine the type of information required for environmental flows calculation, as well as, the complexity on its calculation.

Q2.3

The type of relation/connection between flow and biology, in fact, if the defined environmental flow regimes are ecologically relevant (i.e., if the defined regime shows a clear relation/connection between flow and biology)

A – No clear connection is provided,

B – Some insights (qualitative information),

C –There is a distinguishable link

To understand the cause-effect relationship between flow/ hydrological alterations and biology/ecological conditions is scientifically recognized worldwide. The importance of this relation is also highlighted within the EC recommendations concerning environmental flows, as well as, in the guidance document n° 31 (EC 2015a, 2015b).

Q2.4

Environmental flow regimes defined for different types of years. In other words, if environmental flow regimes were developed for a normal hydrological year (without distinction between normal years and drought years) or if this distinction was done

A – Only for normal hydrological year,

B – For normal and drought years.

The EC highlights the importance of this distinction in the recommendations provided in the 3rd IR

Q2.5

The existence of some specific legislation or guidelines (national and/or regional) concerning the definition of environmental flows

A – National legislation,

B – Regional legislation,

C – National guidelines,

D – Regional guidelines

This assessment is important to enforce environmental flows implementation and/or assist in their definition

Implementation/Monitoring of environmental flows effects

Q2.6

The inclusion of environmental flows into the Programmes of Measures

A – Yes,

B – No

The Programmes of Measures have an important role in the specific implementation of environmental flows for the selected locations

Q2.7

The evaluation of the status of the implementation of the locations in which environmental flows are being implemented and their effects are being evaluated (through monitoring)

A – Implemented for some locations,

B – Implemented for the overall locations,

C – Implemented and their effects are being evaluated in some locations,

D – implemented and their effects are being evaluated in the overall locations

This assessment is crucial to understand the effect of environmental flows on ecosystems, consequently enabling the progressive adjustment of the defined environmental flows

Q2.7.1

Metrics that are being used for the assessment of environmental flows effects

 
Finally, the authors developed a scaling system (Table 3) to indicate/evaluate whether a change in the environmental flows’ situation, between the 1st and 2nd RBMPs, has been made by each MS, or whether progress on environmental flows assessments has been made.
Table 3

Classification used to assess the evaluation of the detected changes and progress

It should be noted that to provide an evaluation of changes/progress, it was necessary to delineate what is considered a “good” and a “fair” progress/situation. In this study, the authors considered that an increase in the complexity of the conducted approaches (i.e. in terms of the information considered), within environmental flows assessments, are associated with an increase in the progress. Having this in consideration, for each question, the authors considered a “good” progress/situation, a “fair” progress/situation, (as provided on Table 4). It should be highlighted that MSs were evaluated as in a condition worse than before when there is a decrease in the complexity of the answers provided (i.e. if in the 2nd RBMPs the countries provide a simpler approach that the applied within the 1st RBMPs). Furthermore, a MS is evaluated as maintain a “bad” situation, when environmental flows are not defined and incorporated in both RBMPs.
Table 4

Description of the threshold of the scaling system (presented on Table 3), for each question

3.3 Complementary/Additional Information of MSs (related with Guidance’s Role and Some Key Aspects of 3rd RBMPs)

After gathering information and having conducted the evaluation related with MSs representatives’ answers to the questionnaire, for both RBMPs, the authors requested more relevant information in environmental flows topic (i.e. some comments), related with the role of Guidance n° 31 (EC 2015a, b) in the implementation of environmental flows, as well as, some relevant information about this topic in the 3rd RBMPs: i) the most significant improvement (i.e. the biggest considered change through the comparison with the previous RBMPS) and ii) the most significant limitation (i.e. an aspect in which it will be necessary to enhance MS efforts). This information, provided by some countries, is also presented in the next section.

4 Analysis of Environmental Flows Implementation Within WFD

4.1 Countries that Participated in the Assessment

From the thirty questionnaires sent, the authors have received feedback from sixteen contact points (about 53% of the total contacted), which was an important contribution to achieve study’s goals. Those corresponding to 14 countries (Fig. 2), as the feedback provided by the three representatives from Belgium was integrated.1
Fig. 2

Countries that agreed to be included in the evaluation performed in this study, by answering the survey

4.2 1st RBMPs (2009–2015) and 2nd RBMPs (2016–2021) Analysis

In this section, the results obtained for each MSs are provided (based on the contributions of each of the MSs participants, highlighting when relevant, the information provided in the official documentation published by the EC).

Figure 3 pictures the survey responding countries in which environmental flows were assessed and incorporated already within the 1st RBMPs (Fig. 3a) and the corresponding progress status on that within the 2nd RBMPs (Fig. 3b).
Fig. 3

Status of ecological flow assessment integration within the a 1st RBMPs and b 2nd RBMPs

Comparing Fig. 3a and b, it is possible to notice an increase in the number of countries that considered the inclusion of environmental flows in the RBMPs. In fact within the 1st RBMPs, 57% of the participating countries assessed and incorporated environmental flows assessments, while in the 2nd RBMPs this percentage increased for 79%.. An evaluation of the progression on the stage of environmental flows implementation was performed and presented on Table 5 (in accordance with the symbology presented on Table 3).
Table 5

Evaluation of progression in relation to the environmental flows assessment and incorporation in the RBMPs

4.2.1 Environmental Flows definition

Q2.1

For the definition of environmental flows, one of the main aspects is the selection of the locations in which environmental flows are to be evaluated (Q2.1). Table 6 presents the locations for which environmental flows have been defined by each one of the participant MSs, obtained from the questionnaires. Figure 4 presents the distribution (in percentage) of the different types of locations selected by MSs to define environmental flows, in both RBMPs.
Table 6

Environmental flows location in the 1st RBMPs and 2nd RBMPs

(A- only for downstream dam’s river stretches, B – for rivers affected by different types of pressures; C – for the whole River Basin District (i.e. for the RBD main rivers and tributaries)

Fig. 4

Distribution (in percentage) of the different types of locations selected by MSs to define environmental flows, in the a 1st RBMPs and b 2nd RBMPs

Through the analysis of Table 6 and Fig. 4, it is possible to perceive that either in the 1st RBMPs or in the 2nd RBMPs most of the countries that assessed environmental flows focused on the definition of environmental flows only for downstream dam’s river stretches. This value was even higher in the 2nd RBMPs. This happened because most of the countries that chose to assess and incorporate environmental flows only in the 2nd RBMPs, decided to conduct their evaluation only for downstream dam’s river stretches (with exception of Finland that assessed environmental flows for several rivers affected by different types of pressures). Table 7 presents the evaluation of progress/situation in the assessed topic.
Table 7

Evaluation of changes/progress in relation to different types of locations selected by MSs to define environmental flows

Those countries evaluated as maintaining a good progress/situation are Austria, Spain, Romania, Scotland (UK) and Finland considered as countries that stand out since they have chosen to assess environmental flows for rivers affected by different types of pressures (B) or for the whole RBDs (C).

Despite the fact that a widely acceptance of environmental flows as an important requirement to sustain freshwater ecosystems (Poff et al. 1997; Postel and Richter 2003; Annear et al. 2004), millions of kilometers of rivers continue unprotected (from the threat of over-allocation of water or to other alterations of the natural flow regime) without the establishment of environmental flows. Nevertheless, throughout the years, environmental flows has been perceived as a measure to mostly mitigate downstream effects of dams (being frequently applied only to those locations). Nonetheless, a global “sense of urgency has arisen” to implement environmental flows for a wider range of locations (Poff et al. 2010). Their inclusion into basin-wide and regional water-resources planning (Dyson et al. 2003; Poff et al. 2010), matches the understanding that environmental flows should be applied all along the rivers (Acreman and Ferguson 2010; EC 2015a, 2015b). Consequently, it is recognized that is crucial to assess ecosystem needs for freshwater in a regional scale (Petts 1996; Dyson et al. 2003; Poff et al. 2003; Arthington et al. 2006; Poff et al. 2010). Within this context, the way forward should be that all countries assess environmental flows for the whole River Basin Districts (C).

Q2.2

The methodologies used to evaluate environmental flows (as defined in Tharme, 2003) were another key issue to assess in terms of environmental flows definition (Q2.2). Table 8 presents the types of environmental flows methods used to assess these flows in the 1st RBMPs and 2nd RBMPs, as referred by each one MSs representatives. Figure 5 presents the distribution of the types of environmental flows methods used to assess environmental flows in both RBMPs.
Table 8

Types of environmental flows methods used to assess environmental flows in the 1st RBMPs and 2nd RBMPs

(A- hydrological methods, B – hydraulic rating; C – habitat simulation, D – holistic methods)

Fig. 5

Types of environmental flows methods used to assess environmental flows in the a 1st RBMPs and b 2nd RBMPs

Through the analysis of Table 8, it is possible to realise that those countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in both RBMPs, maintain the types of environmental flows methods used (with exception of Portugal, which besides the application of hydrological methods chose to apply habitat simulation methods). Nevertheless, this does not mean that MSs did not accomplish improvements in terms of the used methods and related complexity. In fact, some of the countries express that even though the types of methods were maintained in both RBMPs, efforts were carried on in order to enhance the assessments performed.

Through a comparative evaluation of the full picture of this key issue, it is possible to notice that the methods most commonly used to define environmental flows are the hydrological ones, either in the 1st or in the 2nd RBMPs. It could be highlighted that within the 3rd IR (assessment of the 1st RBMPs) MSs did not report the used methodologies accordingly with the groups of environmental flows methods (as defined by Tharme 2003) considered in this study. Nevertheless, the methodologies referred within the 3rd IR could be split into the groups herein used. Having this in consideration, it was possible to perceive that in the hydrological methods, the countries assessed in this study present these type of methods: a) static definition for minimum ecological flow (e.g. 5% to 10% of annual mean flow), b) dynamic definition of minimum ecological flow (i.e. different fixed minimum flow values distributed over the year), c) static definition is combined with a dynamic definition of minimum ecological flow. On the other hand, habitat simulation methods encompass: a) static definitions of minimum ecological flows are combined with a dynamic definition and modelling determination, b) static definition combined with modelling determination, c) double studies, carried out using hydrological and ecological (IFIM) data, for relevant locations. Thus, for the countries assessed in this study, it was possible to perceive that the static definition of minimum ecological flows (included in the type of hydrological methods) are the most frequently applied method within the 1st RBMPs. Even though some improvements were developed in the assessed countries, the situation is very similar within the 2nd RBMPs.

Through the analysis of Fig. 5, it is possible to perceive an increase of the percentage of countries that choose to apply more complex methodologies (included in the group of holistic methods) alone, as well as, coupling hydrological methods with habitat simulations methods. Each one of the types of environmental flows methods reveal some advantages and disadvantages in their application (as referred in Arthington 2012). Nevertheless, it could be considered that there is an increasing level of complexity going from hydrological methods to holistic methods, depending on the type of information necessary for their application. Having this in consideration, accordingly with the information provided in the research design, an evaluation of progress was conducted for each country (Table 9).
Table 9

Evaluation of the types of environmental flows methods used to assess environmental flows

Using the scaling system presented in Table 3 and the criteria previously referred the evaluation of a “fair” progress/situation was applied for those countries that applied hydrological or hydraulic methods for both RBMPs. The reason for this is that, even though hydrological methods express advantages in their application (being the simpler methods to apply), since they did not include biological elements within its calculations the link between flow and biology is not well characterized. Those countries that applied habitat simulation or holistic methods were evaluated as having a “good” progress/situation. This evaluation was also considered for those countries that applied hydrological methods coupled with the more complex methods referred. Hence, through the analysis on Table 9, it could be highlighted that some countries reveal some progress related with the fact that they assessed and incorporate environmental flows within the RBMPs.

Q2.3

Another key issue assessed was if the defined environmental flows were ecologically relevant. In other words, if environmental flows were explicitly defined having in consideration the cause-effect relationship between flow and biological elements used to assess water bodies status/potential (Q2.3).

Table 10 resumes the answers presented by each one of the countries. Figure 6 presents a distribution (in percentage) of the obtained results.
Table 10

Environmental flows and their link with biological indicators

(A – no clear connection is provided, B – some insights (qualitative information) are provided about this link, C – there is a distinguishable link), for both RBMPs

Fig. 6

Overview of environmental flows and their link with biological indicators in the a 1st RBMPs and b 2nd RBMPs

Based on Table 10, it was possible to recognize that most of the countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows on both RBMPs provide the same type of answers. Two exceptions were highlighted, as is the case of Portugal and Romania, which from an answer of no clear connection in the 1st RBMPs, a shift to a more complex conditions was perceived in the 2nd RBMPs. The overall evaluation of the results, reveal that within those countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in the 1st RBMPs, most of them refer that no clear connection is provided. This could be related with the types of methodologies used during this period, mostly hydrological methods in which the connection between flow and biology is not well understood. Moreover, this also could be related with the fact that during the 1st RBMPs the implementation of environmental flows was only starting, so there were no sufficient data to conclude about ecological significance or response of the biological elements used to assess water bodies status/potential. Furthermore, it was possible to perceive that, in the first RBMPs, only one country of the assessed countries choose the option of the questionnaire “there is a distinguishable link between flow and biological indicators”. This could be associated with the fact that this country choose to applied holistic methodologies, which have a higher complexity, since they are “build on an understanding of the functional links between all aspect of the hydrology and ecology of the river system” (Dyson et al. 2003, Arthington 2012).

In the 2nd RBMPs, most of the countries, that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in RBMPs, reveal that some insights (qualitative information) are provided about the link between environmental flows and the biological indicators. Therefore, an increase in the number of countries highlighting the existence of a distinguishable link occurred. This could be related with the fact that in the 2nd RBMPs some countries shifted from the hydrological environmental flows methods to more complex ones. Hence, throughout the time some evidences about the link emerge, which brought more confidence to MSs in the defined environmental flows, consequently in their link with biological indicators.

An evaluation on progress regarding environmental flows and their link with biological indicators is presented on Table 11.
Table 11

Evaluation of the assessed countries in terms of the link between environmental flows and biological indicators

Q2.4

Another key issue relevant to assess was the consideration of different environmental flows regimes for different types of year (i.e. normal years and drought years) (Q 2.4). Ecosystems needs would depend on the hydrological patterns (Poff et al. 1997; Bunn and Arthington 2002) which should be different according to the type of year. It was possible to understand that most of the countries did not establish different environmental flow regimes for normal and drought years, for both RBMPs. That distinction was only made by Austria, Cyprus, Spain and Lithuania (i.e. about 29% of the assessed countries). Those countries that only assessed and incorporated environmental flows in the 2nd RBMPs (i.e. Finland, Latvia and Slovakia) chose to apply environmental flows only for normal years.

The small percentage of countries that define environmental flows for both types of years could be related with the difficulty related with the definition of truthful environmental flows for drought years. In fact, even though several studies has shown drought effects on freshwater ecosystems (Caruso 2001; Boulton 2003; Lake 2003; Monk et al. 2008, Lake 2011), and the role of these events in shaping ecosystems functions, the definition of ecosystems needs for those situations is difficult (namely, due to the lack of ecological information gathered during these situations, making difficult the understanding of the relation between flows and this situations).

Having the overall results, the assessment of the evolution of the assessed countries is presented on Table 12.
Table 12

Evaluation of the assessed countries in terms of the distinction of environmental flows in different types of years

Q2.5

Furthermore, within this study, there was an evaluation of the existence and of the spatial range of instrumental tools used to provide guidance for the definition of environmental flows regimes for their incorporation in the RBMPs (Q 2.5) classifying those as: i) national legislation, ii) regional (sub-national) legislation, iii) national guidelines, or iv) regional guidelines (Table 13).
Table 13

Spatial range of legislation and/or guidelines to provide guidance for the definition of environmental flow regimes and inclusion in both RBMPs

Legislation

Guidelines

N.A.

National

Regional

National

Regional

Austria, Spain, Lithuania, Scotland (UK), Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia

Luxembourg, Finland, Portugal

Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta

Concerning the existence and spatial range of legislation, it should be highlighted that similar information were provided, by each country, for both RBMPs.

Curiously, for Finland, Latvia and Slovakia, where environmental flows were assessed and incorporated only within the 2nd RBMPs, the MSs representatives refer that some legislation providing some insights about environmental flows, already existed by the time of the 1st RBMPs.

For Latvia, even though MS representatives, refer that environmental flows were not defined and incorporated in both RBMPs, the representatives highlighted that by the time of the 1st RBMPs a national legislation where environmental flows definition was provided was already in place, although there was no obligation to include those in the RBMPs. Nevertheless, the country water authorities have decided to assess and incorporate environmental flows in the 2nd RBMPs. A similar situation occurred for Slovakia, where even though a national legislation was also already in force by the time of the 1st RBMPs – where agreed minimum flow limits to be provided in downstream dam’s river stretches are referred – environmental flows were only included in the 2nd RBMPs. Finland revealed that there is a national guideline for hydromorphological status assessment. For this country, environmental flows were used for that kind of assessment, although environmental flows quantification was not included in the 1st RBMPs. In short, it was possible to verify that for Finland, Latvia and Slovakia, even though there is some type of instrument related with environmental flows definition, these countries chose to not include environmental flows in the 1st RBMPs.

Through the analysis of Table 13, it is possible to perceive that none of the assessed countries referred the existence of a regional (sub-national) legislation/guideline. In fact, most of them reveal the existence of a national legislation that provides guidance for the definition of environmental flow regimes and inclusion in RBMPs. Nevertheless, for environmental flows assessments, regional and local specificities would have an important role (EC 2015a, 2015b), hence the existence of more regionally applicable instruments to help MSs to define environmental flows for River Basin Districts, as well as, to include environmental flows in RBMPs is crucial. Having this consideration, it was considered that all MSs, regarding this topic, are in a “fair” progress/situation, with exception of those countries that answered “Not Applicable” in the Table 13. Furthermore, it could be highlighted that MSs representatives reveal some difficulties to answer this question (Q 2.5), due to different terms used to express flow requirements in each one of the countries. For instance, Slovakia representative referred that their national legislation uses the term “minimum flow limits” instead of environmental flows, expressing some doubts about the consideration of these minimum flow limits as being the same that the environmental flow regimes. In fact, as also highlighted in EC (2015a, 2015b), legislation from different countries present different types of expressions regarding flow requirements. Even though, the most commonly used term is “environmental flow”, other terms frequently found are “ecological flow” or “ecological minimum flow”; or in some cases “minimum acceptable flow”, “ecologically acceptable flow”, “common low flow”, “minimum allowable flow”, “minimal residual flow”, “minimum (balance) discharge”, etc. These differences in terms might bring some difficulties, reflecting differences in concepts and definitions, and consequently in the methodologies used to define these flows (EC 2015a, 2015b).

4.2.2 Environmental Flows Implementation and Monitoring of their Effects on Water Bodies Status/Potential

Herein information provided by MSs related with the implementation of environmental flows and monitoring of their effects, which are very important steps in the process (namely to gain knowledge for further adjustments in the environmental flows regimes), was provided.

Q2.6

Hence, the inclusion of environmental flows in the Programmes of Measures (PoMs) was assessed (Q2.6). It was possible to recognize that all the countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows (excepting Lithuania) within the 1st and 2nd RBMPs, referred the inclusion of environmental flows, within the PoMs of both RBMPs. In fact, 50% of the assessed countries referred the inclusion of environmental flows in the PoMs, with this value being increased to 71% in the 2nd RBMPs (with the incorporation of environmental flows in the PoMs of Finland, Latvia and Slovakia).

The existence of PoMs that include measures and actions to implement environmental flows within each MSs is extremely important to enhance an effectively management and implementation of environmental flows to improve water bodies’ status.

The evolution of the assessed countries regarding this key issue is presented on Table 14.
Table 14

Evaluation of the assessed countries in terms of the inclusion of environmental flows in PoMs

Q2.7

Another important key issue assessed was if environmental flows have been implemented and if the monitoring of their effects on biological elements has been performed (Q2.7). Table 15, presents the results obtained by each one of the countries that have incorporated environmental flows in both RBMPs. Figure 7, presents a distribution of the obtained results.
Table 15

Environmental flows implementation and evaluation of their effects in the 1st RBMPs and 2nd RBMPs

Fig. 7

Distribution of environmental flows implementation and evaluation of their effects in the 1st RBMPs and 2nd RBMPs

Through the analysis of Table 15, it was possible to perceive that, with exception of Austria, Cyprus and Portugal, all the countries that assessed and implemented environmental flows in both RBMPs, maintain their answers in the two cases. Austria, Cyprus and Portugal, shifted from a condition of environmental flows implementation to a condition of environmental flows implementation coupled with some monitoring of their effects.

Based on Fig. 7, it was possible to perceive that most of the countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in both RBMPs, only implemented environmental flows without evaluation their effects on ecosystems. This reality is even higher in the 1st RBMPs, which was expected considering the fact MSs may take the first steps in environmental flows implementation and evaluation. In fact, in the 2nd RBMPs it was possible to notice a significant increase of the countries that implement environmental flows. Also, in the 2nd RBMPs it could be highlighted a significant increase in the percentage of countries that together with implementation of environmental flows manage their efforts in order to monitor their effects on biological communities. Considering these results, as for the other key issues assessed an evaluation on progress was performed for each country (Table 16).
Table 16

Evaluation of the assessed countries in terms of the environmental flows implementation and monitoring of their effects

For those countries, that implement environmental flows and conduct monitoring of their effects on biological elements some insights were provided related with the metrics/indicators to conduct the evaluation of the efficiency of environmental flows (Q2.7.1). Austria highlighted that their evaluation of environmental flows effects has been conducted through the evaluation of fish, invertebrates and morphological parameters (depth, flow, velocities). Scotland referred that they chose to conduct an evaluation of environmental flows effects through ecological indicators of severe water resources pressures. In countries like Cyprus, Finland, Portugal, monitoring programs has been developed mainly focusing on the evaluation of the same national indices used to assess water body conditions (i.e. considering biological, physicochemical and/or hydromorphological elements). This type of assessments is very important within WFD implementation, since through this evaluation MSs could understand the effect on water bodies’ status/potential. Hence, if the environmental flows has been contributing to the achievement of good water bodies status/potential, the ultimate goal of WFD. Furthermore, monitoring is very important to establish a cyclical review of the defined and implemented environmental flows.

4.3 Assessment of Progress on Key Issues Related with Environmental Flows Implementation and Way Forward the 3rd RBMPs

All the evaluations performed in the previous section are compiled in Table 17, which also present a “Global” evaluation. This overall classification is the result from the classifications obtained from (Q1 to Q2.7.). If there is a tie in the number of two types of classifications (for example, the same number of classifications with a “good progress” and a “fair progress”) the selected global classification is the better one.
Table 17

Overall evaluation of the modifications between both RBMPs

Through the analysis of Table 17, it is possible to point out the countries with a global classification described as “good” progress/situation: Austria, Cyprus, Spain, Finland, Portugal, Romania and Scotland (UK) (50% of the total of the assessed countries). Malta, Belgium and Bulgaria (21% of the total of the assessed countries) were classified as maintaining a “bad” situation “” since they do not assess and incorporate environmental flows in both RBMPs. In total, 29% of the assessed countries (Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia and Slovakia) were classified as having a “fair” progress/situation.

As previously referred, each representative of MSs also provided some insights regarding the implementation of the recommendations provided by EC at the time of the assessment of the 1st RBMPs and PoMs, as well as, in terms of the consideration of the recommendations of the Guidance n°31.

Based on the assessment on progress of the 1st RBMPs (3rd IR), the EC provided overall recommendations to be considered by MSs in the 2nd and 3rd RBMPs, regarding environmental flows challenge. MSs should: i) apply ecological flow regimes to ensure that authorities and users know how much water and which flow regime is necessary to achieve good ecological status; ii) the methodologies used to define flow requirements should be transparently indicated in the RBMPs; iii) there is a need for more standardized methodologies and for the development of a common understanding for setting ecological flows; iv) to gain knowledge for the further development of ecological flow requirements, monitoring programs should target river stretches where ecological flows are applied to enhance knowledge about the effects of ecological flows on the biological elements used to assess WFD impacts; v) the establishment of ecological flows for all water bodies in Europe is very important for dealing efficiently with water scarcity and drought situations; vi) links between the status, the pressures and the hydromorphological measures should be clear in the 2nd and 3rd RBMPs (EC 2012a, b, c, d). In fact, these recommendations were used as basis for the evaluation of progress on environmental flows.

In March 2015, the EC published the 4rd IR (EC 2015c, 2015d) and some relevant aspects on environmental flows came out with the evaluation of the implementation of the 1st PoMs. Namely: the Commission highlights, that reducing the impact of abstractions and flow regulations should be a priority to MSs within the 2nd PoMs, and this could be achieved through the provision of ecological flows. Moreover, the 4th IR indicates that most of the countries had not completed the process or did not even started to implement the measures related with the improvements in environmental flow regimes and/or establishment of minimum ecological flow. Again, in the 4th IR, the Commission expresses the urgency to monitor, in a systematic way, the effects of ecological flows on biological elements, as those will be very important for the evaluation of the effectiveness of environmental flows. The report also referred that the environmental flow values and/or regimes defined by most of the countries do not seem to guarantee a relationship with good water status.

Within the 4th IR, the EC provided recommendations to the MSs evaluated, some specific for countries assessed in this study, namely: i) Austria and Finland should conduct a review of hydropower permits as restoration measures and the establishment of an ecological flow downstream of hydropower plants will be necessary to achieve good surface water status; ii) Romania should “further develop and analyse ecological flow using the information on ecological status and the information available under the Common Implementation Strategy (CIS)”, iii) Latvia should “strengthen and significantly improve for the 2nd RBMPs the handling of hydromorphological pressures, from assessment of pressures to monitoring, status assessment and definition of measures including fish passes and establishment of ecological flows which guarantee the achievement of good ecological status (e.g. hydro power plants).”, iv) Bulgaria and Spain should develop a proper methodology to establish a link between ecological flows and the good ecological status as well as to guarantee that ecological flows are applied through a review of the permits. Moreover, the Commission asked Spain to “avoid presenting the maintenance of ecological flow in new dams as an ecological benefit of the dam, while they should be considered as a mitigation measure”. MSs representatives were asked about the consideration of these recommendations in the 2nd RBMPs. Austria, Finland and Romania refer that these recommendations were applied in the 2nd RBMPs, while Latvia refer that the recommendations were partly considered. Spain, Bulgaria did not provide any comment about this.

Furthermore, within that report, the EC emphasized that MSs should apply environmental/ecological flows based on the information presented in the Guidance n° 31 on the ecological flows topic (EC 2015a, 2015b). Nevertheless, even though the Guidance on ecological flows has been endorsed by EU Water Directors on 24 November 2014, it was only published in February of 2015 (while the 2nd RBMPs were being developed to be adopted in December of 2015, according to the WFD deadlines). In fact, in the Guidance it is referred that “a gradual and incremental consideration of the recommendations in this guidance is expected from Member States in their implementation of WFD”. Moreover, it was highlighted that a complete consideration of some recommendations “will be only possible when preparing the third cycle”.

According to Austria representative the Austrian method used in the 1st RBMPs already fulfils the requirements of the Guidance. Hence, according to them, no changes were necessary in the 2nd RBMPs and the approach will be maintained in the 3rd RBMPs.

Cyprus referred that the recommendations were used as rough guidelines, but without any specific application for the preparation of the 2nd RBMPs. Therefore, there is no reference to Guidance n° 31 neither in the 2nd RBMPs nor in the 2nd PoMs. The consideration of the recommendations in the 3rd RBMPs was not decided yet.

In the case of Finland, the representatives referred that the recommendations were partly considered in the 2nd RBMPs, namely, on elements which already exist before the Guidance n° 31 recommendations, such as achievement of good ecological status and status assessment of heavily modified water bodies. In terms of the 3rd RBMPs, it is expected that the recommendations will be considered as a part of hydromorphological status assessment, definition on good ecological potential and environmental objectives, also in protected areas.

Lithuania and Luxembourg refer that the recommendations were not considered in the 2nd RBMPs. In the case of Lithuania, they will try to use the recommendations in the 3rd RBMPs according to possibility and applicability in the country. The representative of Luxembourg, concerning the consideration of the recommendations of the guidance in the 3rd RBMPs, highlighted some difficulties in their application. Even though, studies have been developed to define environmental flows based on a holistic approach in the 3rd RBMPs, the representatives of the countries considered that the guidance is not very concrete. Accordingly, they referred that in fact it summarizes many approaches but is not suited to give enough guideline on how to manage the establishment of environmental flows regimes.

Latvia and Portugal referred that environmental flow assessments were considered as an important part of the 2nd RBMPs and associated PoMs, considering the Guidance n° 31. Romania refer that recommendations were considered in the 2nd RBMPs, namely through the consideration of the natural variability of the flow and their interdependence with the fish quality elements. Concerning the 3rd RBMPs, some highlights could be referred: i) Latvia and Romania highlights that recommendations of the guidance will be applied in the 3rd RBMPs; ii) in Portugal, the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA) has been developing a guideline on environmental flows definition and implementation, which will take into account, among other references the Guidance n° 31. According to them, this guideline will be of great importance to improve environmental flows definition and implementation at a national level, being a key decision tool for the 3rd RBMPs.

In the case of Slovakia, the representatives refer that the methods used in the 2nd RBMPs to define environmental flows are in accordance with the recommendations in the Guidance. In fact, the representatives of this country refer that they participate on the works to develop the Guidance, providing knowledge related to a case study developed in the country (EC 2014).

Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain and Scotland (UK) do not provide any comment concerning the consideration of the recommendations of the Guidance in the 2nd RBMPs or if them will be considered in the 3rd RBMPs.

Based on the overall analysis of the contributions provided by MSs in terms of the consideration of recommendations provided by the Guidance n° 31, it was possible to perceive that their consideration was taken in a small extension, which could be related with, as pointed out for some countries: i) the time of the publication of this Guidance, ii) even though many approaches are referred, as well as, recommendations, a need for a deeper guideline on how to manage the establishment of environmental flows will be important.

Finally, some MSs representatives provided come comments related with: i) the most significant improvement (i.e. the biggest change) and ii) the most significant limitation (i.e. an aspect in which it will be necessary to work harder), in the 3rd RBMPs related with environmental flows. Comments provided by those countries that accept to deliver information about this subject are following referred.

According to Austria representatives, the most significant improvement was on the one hand the agreement on standardized environmental flow values in their legal regulations and on the other hand the possibility to change existing licenses of old hydropower plants to guarantee a basic flow to allow fish migration. The biggest challenge for the 3rd RBMPs is to define specific water requirements for different flow dynamics. The Portuguese representatives refer that at the national level, the main change expected to happen is the increase in the number of cases where environmental flows will be implemented, as indicated in the PoM of the 2nd RBMPs. In terms of the most significant limitation, they highlight that the implementation of environmental flows is, in several cases, conditioned by limitations of old hydraulic infrastructures (dams and others) without specific environmental flow release devices. Additionally, they refer the relevance of improving the evaluation of the ecological benefits of environmental flows and its adequacy to achieve the environmental goals defined.

The representatives of Slovakia refer that an aspect in which it will be necessary to work harder in the 3rd RBMPs, will be the definition of environmental flows for drought situations. According to ongoing complex assessment of drought, they expect to have new proposals of flow limits for 3rd RBMPs (appropriate to be used as a background for environmental flows design) with respect to seasonality of runoff regime. Concerning the most significant improvement in this topic, the representatives of Slovakia, highlighted that in the 2nd RBMPs information about environmental flows was added.

Representatives from Scotland (UK) highlighted that they are working on: a) improved biological assessment methods, in particular to better differentiate moderate effects resulting from flow alteration, b) improved methods for assessing useable wetted area.

5 Conclusions

Through this study, it was possible to evaluate the overall status of environmental flows incorporation in some MSs RBMPs, in terms of key issues related with environmental flows: i) definition, ii) implementation and iii) monitoring of their effects.

It was possible to perceive an increase in the number of countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in the 2nd RBMPs, comparing with the 1st RBMPs.

It was possible to conclude that most of the assessed MSs define environmental flows only for downstream dam’s river stretches, for both RBMPs. Nevertheless, efforts should be developed by MSs in order to define environmental flows for a wider range of applications, namely for a regional level (i.e. for a river basin, as highlighted in the Guidance n° 31) to sustain and restore freshwater ecosystems. This has been also a worldwide concern (Arthington 2012; Poff et al. 2010).

Moreover, it was possible to perceive that most of the countries have a national legislation that provide guidance for the definition of environmental flow regimes and inclusion in both RBMPs. None of the assessed countries refers the existence of regional legislation/guidelines, which could be very important instruments to help MSs to take into account regional/local specificities.

For the overall analysis, of both RBMPs, it was possible to notice considerable variations in the types of environmental flows regimes used by MSs, mostly differing in terms of integration of biological aspects, scale, complexity and volume of required data.

It was possible to perceive that most of the countries use hydrological methods, for both RBMPs. It could be highlighted that in the 1st RBMPs most of the countries used a static definition for minimum ecological flows (i.e. hydrological methods), which do not encompass the multiple aspects of an environmental flow regime. Within the 2nd RBMPs, even though, some countries shifted the methodologies used to more complex methods (as holistic), most of them used to apply hydrological methods. Nevertheless, even though the Guidance N°31 states that if there is a lack of environmental ecological information these methods could be applied, it also emphasized the importance in the definition of environmental flows in which the relation between environmental flow regimes and biological elements (i.e. those metrics used to assess water bodies status, which is essential for the achievement of WFD environmental objectives) is perceived. In fact, a significant portion of the environmental flows methodologies used lack consideration of all the relevant flow components (besides minimum flow, which is the most commonly covered).

Furthermore, it was possible to understand that most of the countries did not establish different environmental flow regimes for normal and drought years, for both RBMPs. Though, the importance of drought events in shaping ecosystem behavior is widely known. Hence, efforts should be conducted in order to include flow requirements for this type of situations.

In terms of the evaluation related with the ecological relevance of environmental flows (i.e. if environmental flows were explicitly defined having in consideration the cause-effect relationship between flow and biological elements used to assess water bodies status/potential) it was possible to perceive that most of the countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in RBMPs, pointed out that no clear connection is provided or some insights (qualitative information) about this link is provided. Hence, it was possible to conclude that efforts should be developed in order to enhance knowledge concerning this relation. In fact, this was also a key aspect highlighted by the EC by the time of provision of recommendations for the future based on the work developed in this topic in the 1st RBMPs. To gain knowledge about this relation, monitoring programs should be implemented to understand the effects of ecological flows on the biological quality elements. In fact, the important role of the monitoring programs is well acknowledged in the Guidance document on eflows recommendations. The results from the monitoring programs will provide evidence about relation between flow and biological elements, as well as, on how to manage ecological flows to achieve WFD environmental objectives. In fact, it was possible to perceive that in relation to the evaluation of the performance of MSs in terms of implementation of environmental flows and monitoring of their effects, most of the countries that assessed and incorporated environmental flows in both RBMPs, only implemented environmental flows without evaluation their effects on ecosystems. Thus, it was possible to conclude that MSs should put together efforts, not only to implement environmental flows but also to monitor their impacts.

Overall, it was possible to conclude that, even though, countries show an overall progression through the comparison between the 1st and 2nd RBMPs, MS should enhance their knowledge and efforts about environmental flows. In fact, it was possible to notice that efforts to improve the situations are envisaged in the 3rd RBMPs, namely regarding the consideration of the recommendations provided in the Guidance document on environmental flows.

Regarding the Guidance, even though a set of recommendations and key messages were provided, it could be verified that due to the timing of publication of this Guidance document, the majority of the MSs referred that the recommendations were not considered in the 2nd RBMPs. Furthermore, some difficulties were highlighted by MSs concerning the particular implementation of the recommendations.

Hence a deeper and detailed guidance in environmental flows assessment and incorporation within RBMPs will be important, also as highlighted by some countries, in order to get a common understanding for setting environmental flows and more standardised approaches. In fact, these recommendations were highlighted by EC after the assessment of 1st RBMPs, resulting in the development of the Guidance n° 31, although this necessity seems to persist within the 2nd RBMPs. Without this, different decisions in different parts of Europe are likely to be taken, as well as, potentially inequitable implementation of EU environmental requirements. In fact, in terms of the development of a common and standardised method for setting ecological flows, a method regionally applicable (i.e. river basin district), that encompasses site-specific characteristics, could be essential to develop environmental flow for all water bodies. Indeed, the establishment of ecological flows for all water bodies could be used to enhance the achievement of WFD environmental objectives, as well as to deal with drought effects.

It should be highlighted that the main analysis and conclusions presented in this study, were developed based on the information provided by MSs representatives answers to the questionnaire. The questionnaire was developed with straightforward questions, since the main purpose of this study was to get an overview picture of environmental approaches taken within WFD management cycles, which was achieved. For further studies, it would be interesting to provide other type of questions that enable a deeper assessment of the similarities and differences between the approaches conducted in the countries. The cooperation of more countries would be an important asset, in order to enable a more in-depth knowledge regarding this subject in EU. Another hypothesis for the success of the comparison of environmental flows approaches in MSs could be the obligation to develop a version of the RBMPs in a common language.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    It should be highlighted that the UK representative choose to provide answers that describe the situation in Scotland, highlighting that, although broadly similar, there might be some differences on the approaches taken in other regions of the UK.

Notes

Acknowledgements

The first author gratefully acknowledges for the PhD research grant provided by a protocol established between FEUP and EDP - Produção de Energia, S.A. The authors are grateful to all Member State contact points of the WG ECOSTAT and country representative experts that agreed to help the authors (providing crucial contributions about environmental flows implementation within the WFD, answering the questionnaires and helpful comments): i) Austria – Gisela Ofenböck; ii) Belgium – François Darchambeau, Sofie Bracke, Wim Gabriels; iii) Bulgaria – Marin Marinov; iv) Cyprus – Gerald Dörflinger; v) Spain – Carmen Coleto; vii) Finland – Marko Järvinen and Seppo Hellsten Syke; viii) Lithuania – Audronè Pumputytè, Gintaubas Sabas, Martynas Pankauskas; ix) Luxembourg – Claude Schortgen, Nora Welschbillig, Noémie Patz; x) Latvia – Tatjana Kolcova, Jānis Šīre; xi) Malta – Annabelle Zammit, xii) Portugal – Maria Felisbina Quadrado, Sofia Batista, Verónica Onofre Pinto, xiii) Romania – Cristian Rusu, Otilia Mihail; xiv) Slovakia – Emilia Mišíková Elexová, Lotta Blaškovičova; xv) United Kingdom – Peter Pollard)) . Thanks, are also due to the Environment Water Team of the European Commission, on behalf of Dr. Daniel Calleja Crespo (Director-General for Environment), for providing the contacts of country representative experts. Finally, the authors would like to thank Dr. Eleftheria Kampa from the Ecologic Institute (Berlin-Germany).

A previous shorter version of the paper (Ramos et al. 2017) has been presented in the 10th World Congress of EWRA “Panta Rhei” Athens, Greece, 5-9 July 2017.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

None.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de Engenharia CivilFaculdade de Engenharia da Universidade do PortoPortoPortugal
  2. 2.Departamento de BiologiaFaculdade de Ciências da Universidade do PortoPortoPortugal

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