Photo: Svein-Magne Tunli.

New guidelines for following up the EU Water Framework Directive

The Ministry of Climate and Environment and the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy have recently issued new guidelines for following up the EU Water Framework Directive in watercourses and hydroelectric production. The Norwegian Environment Agency will now intensify its efforts to follow up the river basin districts that are currently working on water management plans for the entire country.


The Ministry of Climate and Environment and the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy have now issued guidelines for how the EU Water Framework Directive shall be followed up by revising old power concessions.

The EU Water Framework Directive requires environmental goals to be set for water bodies in Norway, and remedial measures are to be implemented where the environmental standard is unsatisfactory.

The development of hydroelectric power has a significant impact on Norwegian water bodies, and the environment can be improved by revising old power concessions and toughening the requirements when renewing such concessions.

In a co-written report, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) and the Norwegian Environment Agency reviewed 430 older hydropower concessions in 187 watercourses and recommended which concessions should be given priority for revision.

The two directorates first developed a new method and map type for evaluating the potential for improvement in those concessions that can be revised. They then assessed this potential with an eye toward the ramifications for hydroelectric production.

103 of 187 watercourses were given priority, and 50 of these were given high priority.

The report provided crucial contextual information for the national guidelines currently being issued by the two ministries, and has served as an important basis for the river basin districts’ work on water management plans.

In several regulated watercourses, hydropower is being produced per concessions that were granted several decades ago. Many of the concessions are now ripe for revision, for example by reviewing their current environmental requirements. The Ministry of Climate and Environment and Ministry of Petroleum and Energy have now issued guidelines that aim to help strike a good balance between improving the environment and maintaining the post-revision power production.

“The ministerial guidelines are an important milestone,” says Ellen Hambro, director of the Norwegian Environment Agency. “They are for example highly significant for creating water management plans in accordance with the Water Framework Directive. People are now hard at work drawing up such plans in all of our river basin districts. The Norwegian Environment Agency will follow up the various districts to ensure that the new guidelines are being adhered to.”

Joint report from the directorates 

Late last autumn the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) and the Norwegian Environment Agency issued a joint report that reviews the oldest regulated watercourses in Norway. The report included a prioritization of which such watercourses should be revised. This prioritization was based on an evaluation that sought to maximize the environmental improvements while minimizing the consequences for the production of power stemming from the new environmental requirements. The report’s recommendations and approach have underlain the ministries’ national guidelines.

In a letter to Norway’s river basin districts, the ministries signal that it is in the 50 top-priority watercourses that water discharge and reservoir restrictions are most likely. The ministries also state that the work should emphasize environmental measures that do not curtail the production of energy.

“The ministries’ clarification establishes key principles for balancing the need for environmental improvements in Norwegian watercourses with goals for an increased production of renewable energy,” notes Hambro. “This will make it easier to revise the hydropower concessions from now on.”

Water management plans 

Norway is divided into 11 river basin districts. Water management plans are currently being made in every district and will be sent for consultation during the summer. The plans will show what affects the aquatic environment and ensure that all authorities and sectors that affect the water resources take sufficient consideration to the environment.

The production of hydropower is one of the key factors that affect all the river basin districts. Increased water discharge and reservoir restrictions are relevant measures for improving the environment. The guidelines and clarifications from the two ministries are therefore crucial in the management work.

“By revising the power concessions we can improve the conditions for fish, endangered and red-listed species, vital ecosystems, and recreational activities,” Ellen Hambro says. “The ministries have now established important reference points for how to simultaneously improve the aquatic environment and show due consideration to the production of power in the watercourses.”

Similar work in many countries 

The report from NVE and the Norwegian Environment Agency also established a method for how to weigh environmental improvements up against the social benefit of hydropower production. This method is considered to be just as significant as the actual prioritization of watercourses in the report.

After the report was presented, its assessments generated some discussion and certain factual errors were pointed out. The rectifications should be incorporated before the river basin districts make their own assessments and establish the environmental goals that are to apply to the watercourses in each region in the upcoming water management plans.

The new guidelines from the ministries, as well as an upcoming guide for environmental goals, will help establish adequate reference points for hydropower and environmental considerations for the plans that will soon be in place.

Other European countries are also working to set environmental goals for watercourses with hydropower production. Sweden has launched a national review of its regulated watercourses. Austria and Scotland have established national frameworks for how to balance between environmental improvements in watercourses and the production of hydropower. Other countries also have good examples of how renovating existing hydropower plants can compensate for increased water discharge for environmental purposes.