New EU Regulation on Minimum Requirements for Water Reuse

The EU Regulation 2020/741 of the European Parliament and of the Council on minimum requirements for water reuse entered into force on 26 June 2020 and its provision will apply in all EU member states from 26 June 2023 onwards.

Table of Contents


Objectives and core elements of the EU regulation

The regulation aims to alleviate climate change related water scarcity by fostering water reuse agricultural irrigation in the European Union. The now established common quality standards shall facilitate the uptake of water reuse while ensuring the safety of human health and the environment and promoting circular economy.

The regulation adds to already existing EU environmental legislation as the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (91/271/EWG), the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EG), the Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EG amended by 2014/80/EU), the Nitrate Directive (91/676/EWG) as well as the legislation related to food safety (EC) No 178/2002, (EC) No 852/2004, (EC) No 2073/2005  and (EC) No 1881/2006.

The EU regulation on water reuse focusses on agricultural irrigation due to the high significance in a number of member states. Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, France and Portugal have already been using reclaimed water for irrigation and have established very different set of rules and regulations. According to the European Commission these regulatory differences also led to different conditions of the market.

In addition to common minimum requirements for the quality of reclaimed water and its monitoring, the new EU regulation also stipulates a risk management approach and sets standards for data transparency.

The water quality and monitoring requirements are addressed to the water reclamation facility operator. The water reclamation can be integrated in an urban wastewater treatment plant or a dedicated reclamation plant can be set up.

The following illustration shows – in a very simplified way – the scope of the EU regulation.

Graphic Scope of EU Regulation on Water Reuse
Scope of EU Regulation on Water Reuse
Source: German Environment Agency

The core elements of the regulation

  • The minimum quality requirements are derived on the basis of a JRC report following the objective to prevent health risks and ensure safe products. There are four classes of reclaimed water quality (A, B, C, D) in relation to the intended agricultural use and irrigation method (see Table 1 + 2, Annex I, Regulation (EU) 2020/741). All quality classes require at least secondary treatment and disinfection. The quality parameters include e.coli, BOD5, TSS. For quality A (food crops consumed raw where the edible part is in direct contact with reclaimed water and root crops consumed raw) additionally filtration is needed and turbidity is added as a quality parameter Also specific to class A is the requirement of a validation monitoring for viruses, protozoa, bacteria (see Table 4, Annex I). 
  • The risk management (Annex II) serves to identify site-specific risks to the environment and human and animal health, to derive measures and additional requirements for risk mitigation and monitoring.
  • Member states have to publish data on the quantity and quality of the reclaimed water, the permits and compliance in the water reuse systems.

Application of water reuse depends on specific conditions in Member States

Water reuse for agricultural irrigation can be a potential measure to deal with water scarcity when other measures (e.g. adapting the crop selection, reducing water losses, improving water use efficiency) are not sufficient to reduce the water demand. However, depending on specific geographic and climatic conditions, status of and pressures on water resources, environmental and resource costs, member state can decide that water reuse it not appropriate for one or more of its river basin districts or parts thereof. This decision needs to be justified and communicated to the European Commission (Article 2).


Perspective of the German Environment Agency

From the perspective of the German Environment Agency the minimum quality requirements and the provisions for the risk management are not precise and ambitious enough. The implementation will likely differ widely between and within member states.

As the defined quality requirements are to be complied with when the reclaimed water is delivered from the reclamation facility to the next actor in the chain, any potential deteriorations in water quality during transport and storage remain unaddressed. However, member states may require additional permits for storage, distribution and use of reclaimed water.

The risk management shall be used to derive further site-specific requirements and measures to ensure that water reuse is safe if remaining risks are identified or not all legal provisions are complied with. As the regulation only outlines the core elements of the risk management further guidance from the Commission and/ or the Member states is needed.  The Commission will provide a general guidance on the application of the regulation as well as specifications for the risk management by 2022/2023 respectively. 

Prior to its application in Germany, some provisions of the EU regulation need to be adapted to the German context and to be integrated in national law, especially with regard to responsibilities and permitting procedures.

In late 2020 the German Working Group on Water Issues of the Federal States and the Federal Government (LAWA) has established a dedicated ad hoc working group to develop proposals for the national regulation and implementation of the EU regulation on water reuse. The experts on water resources management, wastewater, water legislation and soil aspects address questions related to the legal framework, potential exemptions, permitting processes, further quality requirements, the implementation of the risk management and monitoring. 

Further aspects related to water reuse technologies and the use of reclaimed water will be dealt with in technical standards and guidelines by the DWA, the German Association for Water, Wastewater and Waste. (For the international context the association had published “DWA-Topics - Non-Potable Water Reuse - Development, Technologies and International Framework for Agricultural, Urban and Industrial Uses” in June 2019).

For the national implementation of the EU regulation on water reuse the German Environment Agency recommends to take the following aspects into account:

  • Further details should be provided for the listed treatment technologies secondary treatment, disinfection and filtration, providing science-based recommendations for suitable combinations of treatment processes. Potential disinfection by-products should be addressed.
  • It needs to be ensured that the end-user only uses the reclaimed water for the crops and irrigation technologies matching the respective water quality class. The monitoring for pathogens should be extended, i.e. the validation monitoring for bacteria, protozoa and viruses should not only be applied to quality class A but always when food crops are irrigated. The reclaimed water should also be monitored to be free of salmonellae.
  • The regulation sets the point of compliance at the point where the reclaimed water is delivered to the next actor in the chain while the risk management covers the whole water reuse systems. This leads to challenges in terms of responsibilities, thus clear definitions are needed stating which actor is responsible for which risk mitigation and quality control measure(s).
  • So far it is also unclear how further requirements are to be derived from the risk assessment, e.g. for heavy metals, pesticides, disinfection by-products, pharmaceuticals, other substances of emerging concern including micropollutants and microplastics or anti-microbial resistance (Annex II, (B) 6). Setting site-specific measures and requirements may pose challenges to operators/ users and authorities and should thus be complemented by a guidance. Since the minimum quality requirements do not address all potential risks, a systematic implementation of the risk management is crucial for safe water reuse.
  • Groundwater, soil and water bodies used for the abstraction of water intended for human consumption and relevant safeguard zones shall be protected in accordance with the precautionary principle and should be monitored regularly. An exemption of water reuse in water protection areas (for drinking water abstraction) can be considered.
  • Potentially high costs for administration and infrastructure related to water reuse need to be taken into consideration. Further discussions on financing opportunities and cost sharing will be needed.
  • The regulation does not preclude Member States from allowing the use of reclaimed water for other purposes, e.g. landscape irrigation, that appear suitable and safe. Considering increasing droughts Germany will assess other potential uses in the future.
  • When regulating and implementing water reuse as defined by the EU regulation, authorities should consider potential indirect water reuse and its resulting risks. This refers e.g. to the abstraction of surface water for agricultural irrigation without further treatment and quality control. A UBA study published in 2018 has shown that especially under low-flow conditions the percentage of treated effluent in German rivers can be high, increasing the potential presence of pathogens and pollutants (for an English article see Karakurt et al. 2019).
  • While water reuse can be a potential measure to address water scarcity it has to be in line with the provisions of the Water Framework Directive to prevent deterioration of the status of water bodies as well as to prevent or limit the input of pollutants into groundwater.  

Basis for the development of the EU regulation

The minimum quality requirements are based on a technical report by the JRC, Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. As member in the EU „Ad-hoc Task Group Water Reuse” the German Environment Agency had opportunities to comment on the JRC draft reports. In response to draft 3.2, December 2016, we published Recommendations for deriving EU minimum quality requirements for water reuse. Some of our recommendations we find reflected in the current EU regulation.

Other critical points to the JRC proposal have also been addressed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA Technical  Report 22 May 2017) and the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks SCHEER (SCHEER Scientific Advice 9 June 2017).

The Impact Assessment (summary) that accompanied the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on minimum requirements for water reuse (2018) outlines why the European Commission concluded that a regulation for  agricultural irrigation with a "fit-for-purpose" approach and risk management would be most beneficial in environmental,  economic  and  social  terms. It was forecasted that the proposed regulation could increase the uptake of water reuse at affordable prices to around 6.6 billion m3 per year compared to the baseline of 1.7 billion m3 and that it would lead to a “level playing field” for investors, enhanced certainty for the distribution of products irrigated with reclaimed water and a higher level of public confidence in water reuse for irrigation.

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