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German Federal Water Legislation

The Federal Water Act

Two important federal laws constitute essential elements of water pollution control: the Federal Water Act (WHG) of 1957 and the Waste Water Charges Act (AbwAG) of 1976. The range of tools available under these acts has been steadily expanded and improved. They have reached a high standard despite the fact that federal legislative powers are restricted to the enactment of framework provisions (Art. 75 German Basic Law).

With the entry into force of the Seventh Amendment to the Federal Water Act on 25 June 2002 Germany completed the transposition of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) into federal framework legislation, thereby creating the basis for achieving the EU-wide objective of good status for all bodies of water. For the first time, the WFD adopts a coherent, holistic approach to water resource management. The new water legislation provides for an interlocking system ranging from an inventory of the current status of the various waters and the deficits revealed, through plans designed to achieve the objectives, to the implementation of appropriate programmes of measures and preparation of management plans.

Management now covers whole river basin districts, i.e. from the spring to the estuary including all tributaries. Therefore boundaries of hydrological drainage areas have replaced state or country borders as the decisive factor. In Germany there are 10 river basin districts: Danube, Rhine, Maas, Ems, Weser, Elbe, Eider, Oder, Schlei/Trave and Warnow/Peene.

  • Management objectives and requirements for surface waters (objective: good ecological and chemical status) and groundwater (objective: good quantitative and chemical status). The fauna and flora inhabiting surface waters are of particular importance for the quality of water bodies.
  • Programmes of measures and management plans have been introduced as comprehensive planning tools, planning tools of the past (sewage disposal plans, regulations to prevent pollution, general water plans, old regime management plans) were abrogated. The federal states (Länder) are also obliged to implement, among other things, the far reaching requirements of the WFD with regard to public information and consultation.
  • The federal states are also obliged to harmonise and coordinate the management of water bodies in the river basin districts both on the national and international level.

In view of the framework competence of the federal legislature, the Federal Water Act was only able to adopt the salient features of the Water Framework Directive; the details had to be regulated by the federal states. The reform of the federal system concluded in 2006 allocated new powers to the federal level in the field of water legislation. These will be used to regulate water legislation at the federal level in a more comprehensive way than in the past. The new stipulations will be part of the Environmental Code, which is to harmonise and consolidate the up to now rather fragmented environmental legislation in Germany.