The results of chemical testing of rivers show two disparate pictures: 86% of surface water bodies (rivers and lakes) have overall good chemical condition, which means that they currently have no new pollution loads. However, the results are much poorer if chemicals polluting the environment for a long time and virtually everywhere are factored in – for example mercury from centuries of coal combustion or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the plasticisers in plastics. Because of this consistent pollution none of Germany's surface waters, which means lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters, have good chemical status. Many of the other EU Member States are facing the same problem.
96 per cent of the groundwater has good quantitative status and 64 per cent has good chemical status. The cases of bad chemical status are largely due to excessively high nitrate concentrations. President Maria Krautzberger of the German Environment Agency (UBA) said: “Agriculture is the main source of the high nitrate inputs contaminating our groundwater. This sector must assume its responsibility for ensuring that water remains clean. We therefore urgently need improved regulation of fertilizer use in order to protect our groundwater effectively.” One important measure could be to introduce obligatory nutrient accounting by all farmers and better enforcement of an updated Fertiliser Ordinance.
The chemical status of water bodies in Germany is assessed according to standardized criteria which are applied throughout Europe. They include environmental quality standards for 33 priority substances such as atrazine or benzene and other harmful substances (e.g. DDT), and a safety threshold for nitrate pursuant to the Nitrates Directive. The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) which entered into force in October 2000 provides the basis for the criteria. The WFD is considered an important milestone in water policy. Its implementation is responsible among others for the fact that the condition of the Rhine river is much better today than in the era of the Sandoz accident when 30 tonnes of chemicals were dumped into the river. After fires broke out at the Sandoz Swiss chemical manufacturing company on the night of 31 October 1986, some 10 tonnes of highly toxic pesticides were washed into the Upper Rhine with the fire extinguishing water. Fish and microorganisms died off in a red-stained river along a stretch of some 400 kilometres. Even drinking water supply along the Rhine was affected, and some regions had to be supplied temporarily from other sources. Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said: “The Sandoz disaster triggered a rethink in political and industrial circles. The measures for immediate action to improve the water quality in the Rhine and for the prevention of major accidents which were adopted as early as December 1986 as well as the Rhine action programme adopted a year later achieved significant improvement of the river’s water quality. The Rhine has now recovered very well.”
Nowadays many comprehensive monitoring programmes provide the basis for evaluation of the condition of water bodies in Germany. The aim of monitoring surface waters and groundwater is to gain conclusive results for these evaluations and to gain an insight into pollution levels. It also serves as a basis for action planning and is a means to gauge whether implemented measures are achieving their intended aims. The Germany states have installed nearly 600 measuring stations in surface waters for the purpose of surveillance monitoring, in addition to 14,000 stations for the operational monitoring of surface water bodies.