Groundwater: Partnerships are Key to Success / / by Rob Ward

Rob Ward is a director of science at the British Geological Survey and a UK representative on the European Commission’s Water Framework Directive Groundwater Expert Group. Here, Rob explains his role in the group and some of the issues discussed at the recent meeting held in Helsinki, Finland...

European ministry officials and experts in attendance at the Helsinki meeting

I have recently been in Helsinki continuing to represent the UK as a member of the European Commission’s (EC’s) groundwater expert working group. With groundwater being so important in Europe – it is the source of drinking water for 75% of its people and supports critical ecosystem services – this expert group formally meets twice a year in the country holding the EU presidency. Having been on the group for nearly 20 years, I’ve now visited most European capitals. It is unclear if Helsinki will have been my last meeting, but let’s wait and see.

The working group primarily focuses on the groundwater aspects of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), the Groundwater Directive and links with other directives such as the Drinking Water Directive, Nitrates Directive and Habitats Directive. Its role is to advise the Commission on the shaping of EU legislation and its implementation, develop technical guidance and share experience that can improve the protection and sustainable use of groundwater. The meetings are attended by Government officials supported by their technical experts. It has an agreed mandate that sets out a three year programme of work.

Rob participating in the recent European Commission Expert Group meeting

Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to work with some brilliant people and had the privilege of leading a number of the associated drafting groups. These have produced publications known as ‘Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) Guidance Documents’. I’ve also been involved in negotiations on the text of the Groundwater Directive, and presented BGS research outcomes that have led to subsequent revisions to this directive and established an on-going activity for the expert group. Two BGS publications, one led by Marianne Stuart and the other by Dan Lapworth, highlighted concerns about emerging contaminants in groundwater and that we had insufficient data to be able to properly understand the risks. As a result, the revised directive established a requirement to identify a ‘Watch List' of substances of concern that EU Member States should consider when assessing the risks to groundwater, drinking water and the environment. The process of establishing the Watch List has been the subject of a recent journal paper led by Dan, who has also been working with the Watch List group. 

Coming back to the Helsinki meeting, the proceedings were opened by the Finnish State Secretary for the Ministry of the Environment. There were then discussions on the Watch List, which has now been approved by EU Water Directors and primarily consists of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and some pharmaceuticals, the ‘fitness check’ for the WFD (the public consultation part of which resulted in 386,000 responses), and the development of Member State climate change strategies and associated groundwater quality and resource protection/resilience priorities. New activities launched by the group will address mechanisms to increase the use of artificial recharge (led by Malta) and identifying/developing tools for monitoring climate change impacts on groundwater (led by Ireland). A standing item on the agenda for the meeting is research activities. For this meeting the EC asked me to present an overview of groundwater research priorities identified by the member state expert group representatives. The aim being for the EC’s DG-Environment to feed these into Horizon Europe planning process. Horizon Europe is the follow on to Horizon 2020. 

The European Commission Expert Group meeting in the Finlandia Hall, Helsinki

The final day was a joint workshop with the equivalent Drinking Water Directive (DWD) expert group. A revised (re-cast) directive is being negotiated that aims to better align the DWD with the WFD by recognising the importance of catchment protection rather than simply relying on water treatment. Attending this from the UK side, as well as myself, was the head of the UK Drinking Water Inspectorate, Marcus Rink, and his deputy, Laura Moss. Issues being explored were differences in terminology and common understanding, risk assessment and monitoring. The aim being to get a negotiated and revised text agreed by European leaders.

Participation in these meetings may seem glamorous, but it is hard work - honest. The outputs from the group have been recognised as world-leading, and this is as a result of the positive and long-lasting working relationships that have developed. BGS participation has allowed us to showcase our work, establish a strong professional reputation and develop partnerships that have been successful in winning EU and other research funding. The most recent example of this is a £2.5M commission, just awarded to us by the Government of Malta, to develop a new groundwater and surface water monitoring network and programme for the Maltese Islands over the next three years. More on this in a future blog.

If anyone would like to know more about the work of Groundwater Expert Group, I’d be happy to tell you more.

The House of Estates, the venue for the Drinking Water Directive meeting

[1] Stuart, M.E.Lapworth, D.J.Crane, E.Hart, A.J.. 2012 Review of risk from potential emerging contaminants in UK groundwater. Science of the Total Environment, 416. 1-21.
[1] Lapworth, D.J.Baran, N.Stuart, M.E.Ward, R.S.. 2012 Emerging organic contaminants in groundwater : a review of sources, fate and occurrence. Environmental Pollution, 163. 287-303.
[1] Lapworth, D.J.Lopez, B.Laabs, V.Kozel, R.Wolter, R.Ward, R.S.Vargas-Amelin, E.Besien, T.Claessens, J.Delloye, F.Ferretti, E.Grath, J.. 2019 Developing a groundwater watch list for substances of emerging concern: a European perspective. Environmental Research Letters, 14 (3), 035004.