Challenged Danish water planning

A multi-stringed plan process, that has been predominantly top-down with strong stakeholders who are challenging the authorities, has left Denmark among the few EU Member States that still do not have their river basin management plans approved and implemented

16. August 2014

The Water Framework Directive

The purpose of the Water Framework Directive is to make plans for protection of groundwater and surface water, which will secure the possibility of utilizing the water resources for ours and future generations as well as for animals and plants habitats. The need for water is prioritized in following order for drinking water, nature and industrial purposes.

delimitation river basin management plan Denmark

The planning area is subdivided into 23 river basins and delimited near land for ecological status and further out at sea where the territorial waters are delimited for chemical status. Contain data from the Danish Geodata Agency, MapInfo tab-files for RBMP delimitations and coastal waters, December 2013.

Surface water is defined as watercourses, lakes and coastal waters. The protection is done by securing a good ecological status and chemical status for the surface waters and a good chemical and quantitative status for groundwater. Good ecological status is evaluated through indicators.

For the first plan period the authorities has only used 1 biological quality element for each type of surface water. It has resulted in criticism among others the European Commission. In the new basis analysis from February 2014 insects, fish and water plants have been used for watercourses. If just one of these indicators does not fulfill good ecological status the water body is said to fulfill the target.

For a good chemical status in water bodies maximum concentration values has been set for substances contributing to eutrophication as e.g. nitrate and phosphorous, polluting substances with national environmental quality standards as e.g. iodine and prioritized dangerous substances as e.g. mercury. For groundwater there cannot be any saltwater intrusion either.

In order to fulfill good quantitative status in groundwater areas the abstraction cannot be as high as it will hinder the attached watercourses and lakes in achieving good ecological and chemical status or it is damaging to e.g. meadows and marshes that depend on the supply of groundwater. As a principal rule the abstraction is maximum 35 % of the yearly recharge.

For watercourses and lakes a small increase in the amount of water bodies that fulfill good ecological/chemical status in the period from now till next planning period ends in 2021 is expected, while for groundwater and coastal waters no improvement in the status is expected. This mean Denmark is far from fulfilling the environmental goals in 2015 as well as in 2021.

Uncertainties on fulfilling goals of good status in water bodies are caused by e.g. the yearlong transportation time for groundwater from recharge in aquifers till reaching inlets or the sea. Therefore the time span from implementing a measure on the field to the effect is measurable in the sea can be very long. Nutrients are piled up in the sediment both in lakes and the coastal waters. Between the water column and the bottom there is a continuous exchange of nutrients which even in years with low nitrogen discharge may result in a sudden rise in algae with consequential deoxygenation incidents according to whether the summer is sunny without wind or not. Prioritized substances piled up at the bottom of the sea as well as continued trawling are environmental impacts that also create uncertainty on whether our programme of measures is sufficient to reach the environmental goals.

Nobody knows exactly how much is needed to recreate a status close to the natural state.


The complex process with three types of plans and hearings

In the river basin management plan proposals that until now have been out in public hearings the measures that are expected to be necessary for environmental goal fulfilment are described as basic measures carried through in the ordinary legislation as e.g. The Environmental Protection Act, The Watercourse Act, The Water Supply Act among others and supplementary measures that are decided through the river basin Management plans. Furthermore there is another type of plan legislation and political agreements that will affect the possibility for an improvement in the status of the water bodies including Green Growth plan, which has ensured a continuation of part of the measures that were supposed to be implemented through the approved river basin management plans, but also the new plan Growth in Food Production between the government and rightwing parties that has withdrawn some parts of the general measures. By the way measures that have been evaluated through 3 cross ministerial analyses before the decision on using these measures in the plan proposals in 2011.

The Water Framework Directive demands all interested parties to be included in the process and the public to be heard throughout the process of implementing river basin management plans. In the common process of legislation and the alternative growth plans there is no transparency on who is heard.


Problems illustrated by court cases

Many interest organisations have chosen to use the appeal system at the courts as a way to be heard. It has resulted in e.g. a decision from the Nature and Environmental Appeal on invalid river basin management plans in December 2012.

The Green Growth agreement split the agricultural sector. A new trade union, Sustainable Agriculture was established in 2010 and their members administer approximately 2/5 of the Danish farmland. The new organization has chosen to conduct several cases at court against the ministries, for what they perceive as larger restrictions on agricultural production than in other European countries and unfair compensations.

grøft FFJ

En selv-gravet grøft, som formanden for Bæredygtigt Landbrug postulerer, er udpeget til naturligt vandløb, der skal nå en DVFI værdi på 5 og have udlagt randzoner, men udpegningen og vurdering af nuværende tilstandsklasse kan ikke ses på Miljøministeriets MiljøGIS-viewer for forslag til vandplaner 2013!

Sustainable Agriculture conducts at present 3 cases against respectively The Ministry of the Environment and The Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. “The final showdown” is targeted the programme of measures for the river basin management plans in general and in particular the changed maintenance measure. The causal chain is explained as less water weed cutting slows down the watercourse flow, resulting in raised bottoms by more sedimentation, blocks drainage pipes in the flatlands, leaves all the adjoining soils with higher groundwater level, reducing the plants possibilities for root growth and finally this reduces the yields on the fields and turns fields into swamps. The general marginal zones are thought to be similar to expropriation, and the organisation demands single compensation for the land rather than yearly compensations. The case on limitation on use of fertilizer concerns impoverishment of the soil and as a result the farmers experience lesser yields.

Sustainable Agriculture has been kept out of some parts of the plan process on accusations on violation of the law, but still they seem to have influenced the backtracking of the government concerning the general measures through active hearing campaigns, a very active press release communication and audience with political committees and ministries.

“Member States shall encourage the active involvement of all interested parties in the implementation of this Directive” The Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC article 14 (1)

Danish Agriculture and Food Council has been more included in the process through participation in workgroups like e.g. baseline2015 and the two strategy meetings in the Lykkesholm group. Still though likewise they have chosen to sue The Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and The Ministry of the Environment on the same issues as Sustainable Agriculture, but contrary to Sustainable Agriculture only on behalf of few members as a test trial, while Sustainable Agriculture sues on behalf of all their members.

Danish Society for Nature Conservation has already in 2006 together with many other organisations complained to EU over lack of implementation of polluter-pay-principle. The trial is in progress as a test-case against Germany and will be able to influence whether e.g. farmers have to pay for their own water catchment for irrigation purpose due to the environmental pressure by less water in the watercourses and groundwater. This is something ordinary consumers and industry are already paying through the water charges at the water supply and wastewater utilities.

Finally for the second time the European Commission has started a case against Denmark for not having produced approved river basin management plans yet.

So far noorganisation has tested the use of exemptions at EU court, which mainly consist on pushing the deadline to be able to fulfil the environmental goals. Criticism has been focusing on other Member States have been using the exemptions to a higher degree than us, and that measures have not been planned for all water bodies, which do not fulfil the environmental demands at present.


Hope isall attached to targeted, differentiated planning

The targeted planning covers various measures. Instead of making river basin management plan for all lakes, we can e.g. settle for targeting the lesser number of large lakes, that we can administratively manage within a planning period. Instead of focusing on reduction of national nutrient discharge to the aquatic environment on either 9.000, 19.000 or 30.000 ton of nitrogen annually, we can focus on reductions in the river basins, that drain to the inlets, which have been mostly hit by deoxygenation incidents. Finally we can focus on measures on watercourses, which have natural preconditions for fulfilling the desired good status like e.g. sufficient downward fall or gravel and stones at the bottom instead of ditches in the flat agricultural part of the land.

The concept of differentiated use of marginal zones was introduced already back in 2003 in a proposal for the Water Environmental Plan III. At this time the measure was intended for areas where water bodies are more vulnerable to nutrient discharge and pesticides, and according to this vulnerability marginal zones should be designated in various widths e.g. up till 50 m.

The present ongoing mapping is based on the water bodies’ vulnerability in relation to nitrogen and robustness of soils in nitrogen retention. But unfortunately the mapping is not made all down to the single field level, which means there is still a long way ahead in research, before it will be possible to make more cost-efficient solutions.


Still much research is needed

One possible future measure is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges to the aquatic environment by constructed wetlands, which in biological processes is similar to natural wetlands, but concentrated on a small area e.g. 1 ha to 100 ha of fields. Instead of having many small drainage pipes discharging drain water with its nutrient content direct into the watercourses all drain water discharge is channeled through either an open wetland with apondage or a filter matrix under surface both with deoxidized conditions. The most important bacterial group will then decompose the nitrate bound nitrogen through denitrification to its common gaseous state (N2) in order to get energy. Phosphorous will settle in the sediment. The best effect is achieved by the longest retention time in the constructed wetland as well as on soils where a major part of the nutrient loss happens through drain water.

Constructed wetlands have been tested for some years now. Like other proposals for possible solutions to cost-effective measures against pollution by nutrients knowledge is still missing. For this measure there is lack of knowledge on e.g. which soils have the highest nutrient loss through drain water, how the facilities are maintained and results from more tests. The results from Aarhus University are not expected before 2016, but fact sheets have been prepared for the state authorities in summer 2014. Preliminary results look promising.

The authorities who have order the research has acute need for solutions for the coming programme of measures in the river basin management plan proposals for 2. period from 2015-2021, since some measures previously chosen for goal fulfilment have been removed by the political agreement on the 2. April 2014. But like the political agreement has been another decision-making in a closed room without a debate among the interested stakeholders also the preliminary result are not made public – there is a confidentiality issue.

Symptomatic for the entire process is the prevailing top-down control in which the people in power have the best available knowledge and decision are made without broad public involvement. The newly established Water Council will get some local influence, but the selection of possible measures is still made by the state authorities.


Suggested literature:

Strøm, L. & Thomsen, C.V. 2014, Beretning til Statsrevisorerne om vandplaner, Rigsrevisionen,

Videncentret for Landbrug & Aarhus Universitet, Institut for Agro 2014, Plantekongres 2014, 14.-15. januar i Herning Kongrescenter : sammendrag af indlæg, Videncentret for Landbrug.

Madsen, B.L. 2013a, 13 år med vandrammedirektivet – har det givet os bedre vandløb?, Aktuel Naturvidenskab.

EC 2012, Member State: Denmark. Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation of the water framework directive (2000/60/EC) river basin management plans, European Commission, Brussels.

Miljøudvalget & Fødevareudvalget 2012, Faktahøring i Miljøudvalget og Fødevareudvalget om vandplaner afholdt d. 17. september 2012., Folketinget,

Naturstyrelsen 2014, Basisanalyse for vandområdeplaner 2015-2021, Naturstyrelsen, København.


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