Two decades of the EU Water Framework Directive: Evidence of success and failure from a lowland arable catchment (River Wensum, UK)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) is widely regarded as a seminal piece of environmental legislation. However, two decades since its inception, many European waterbodies are failing to meet its ambitious goal to ensure ‘good’ quantitative and qualitative status. Here, we investigate the impact of the WFD upon the environmentally sensitive yet heavily impacted River Wensum, a lowland arable catchment in eastern England. Compiling a dataset of 10,950 water quality samples collected from 57 sites across the catchment at approximately monthly intervals during 2000–2022, we assess the spatio-temporal dynamics of 12 priority pollutants, identify the major drivers of water quality change, and evaluate current and future compliance with WFD goals. Our analysis reveals improvements in wastewater treatment initiated significant declines (11–50 %) in the concentration of key sewage pollution indicators (phosphorus, ammonium, biological oxygen demand (BOD)) during the early 2000s. Conversely, agricultural pollution indicators (nitrogen, suspended solids, pesticides) displayed either limited change or a deterioration in water quality, with oxidised nitrogen concentrations in particular having increased 23 % during 2015–2022. Concentration spikes of organic chemical contaminants in recent years (propyzamide, tetrachloroethylene) raise concerns about increased riverine pollution from hazardous substances. Similarly, changes in winter (+13 %) and summer (−7 %) discharge over the past two decades have increased the risk of diffuse pollution mobilisation and reduced the dilution of point source pollutants, respectively. By 2022, ‘good’ or ‘high’ water quality status for organic matter pollution indicators (dissolved oxygen, BOD, ammonium) was achieved for >98 % of samples, however WFD compliance fell to just 46 % for phosphorus and 1.8 % for nitrogen. Projections to the end of the third River Basin Management Plan cycle (2027) reveal that whilst phosphorus compliance is likely to improve, nitrogen compliance failure will persist due to the existence of catchment legacy stores and climate change induced impacts on nitrogen mobilisation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number161837
Number of pages14
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date26 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2023


  • Europe
  • Water quality
  • Nutrients
  • Sewage
  • Agriculture
  • Pollution
  • EU Water Framework Directive

Cite this