From plans to action - what awaits the water management in Poland?

24 stycznia 2022 r.

Public consultations on the 2nd update of the water management plans have finished. The legislative process will soon begin, as a result of which the IIaPGW project will be adopted by a regulation of the minister responsible for the water management, as a document valid for the next 6 years. This is a good time to summarise - what is the "philosophy" of the water management and how Poland looks compared to Europe in terms of the state of waters", says Przemysław Gruszecki, the Director of the Water Environment Management Department at the National Water Management Authority.


Przemysław Gruszecki, the Director of the Water Environment Management Department at the National Water Management Authority.

What are the water management plans?

The water management plans are documents in which, on the basis of the analyses and observations, we diagnose the condition of the water environment in Poland. They summarise several years of analytical work, in which we are looking for all the information about waters and how the human activities, the economic situation of the country and the ongoing economic and social processes affect their condition. The starting point for the development of the water management plans is the description of the current situation and the analysis of the social and economic processes as well as the development prospects of the country.

Thus, water management plans are a summary of the overall assessment of the state of the aquatic environment with a perspective for the next 6 years. So the plans are documents in which we show how this picture will change during this period. We advise what actions should be taken to improve the condition of the aquatic environment, or it not to deteriorate, if it is good. This is a kind of recipe for the water management.


Who is responsible for developing the water management plans?

The project is being developed by the National Water Management Authority, and the last shape of these documents is the responsibility of the minister responsible for the water management, currently the Minister of Infrastructure. The water management plans are adopted by the ordinance of the Minister.

Why are the water management plans made?

When looking at the legal basis, it should be emphasised that the preparation of the water management plans results from the Water Framework Directive (WFD), adopted in 2000 by the Member States of the European Union. At the Community level, it has been recognised that the water management and the protection of the aquatic environment are issues which have to be organised on the basis of international cooperation, on the basis of the same requirements. It has been established that water is such a valuable resource that it has to be taken care of for the future generations, and that the measures to protect water will only be effective if the decisions concerning them are made jointly by all the Community countries. This common goal of bringing all the categories of waters to good status as defined in the Directive, has to be pursued on the basis of the appropriate common principles. The water management plans are documents which, on the one hand, show the country's idea of achieving this goal, and on the other hand, they are used by the European Commission to verify if the implementation of the directive is proceeding correctly.

This is now a requirement of the European Union. How did it look like before? Who was responsible for the condition of the waters in Poland?

The Minister of the Environment, but there was no document such as the water management plan prepared. In general, the water management was something else entirely. The dominating approach, let's call it the "engineering" approach, and the water quality was assessed based on approx. 50 physicochemical and bacteriological indicators, classifying waters as class I, II and III or out of class waters. It is worth noting that no one characterised or classified the quality of aquatic ecosystems. However, you can certainly meet people who will say that this Water Framework Directive did not change much, because, for example, the catchment management in Poland was already in use in the 1970s.

In reality, however, the Water Framework Directive forced two important changes on the national basis: the implementation of the catchment management and basing all the analyses and environmental objectives on biological indicators. This kind of revolution in the water management was based on the need to move away from the water management as such and implement the water ecosystem management. When we speak of waters, we mean the aquatic environment, water-dependent ecosystems, and water in this broad natural sense. The water quality is assessed by characterising the quality of life of the fauna and flora in it. The directive forced the EU member states to plan, so it ordered the rules and processes in the water management and defined short-term and long-term goals.

Water management plans were first drawn up in 2011. They have been updated in 2016 and are currently undergoing a second update. What has changed from the beginning? Do we really see the effects of these 6-year cycles?

First, we need to explain what these updates are for. Water management is based on a model which can be brought to a philosophy - evaluate what you manage and, where you see problems, propose and implement corrective actions. Within a specified period of time, check whether these actions are bringing the expected effect. Depending on the answer to this question, we either do nothing, because we are able to achieve the assumed goal, which means, a  good condition of all the waters, or we verify the input data and the action plan, i.e. we update what was planned in the previous cycle.


Do we see the effects?

We see the diminishing load of pollutants which we discharge into the Baltic Sea by the rivers. However, there is no improvement in the classification of the status of our waters, mainly the river waters. When presenting the classification results graphically, we use colors, and the bad water condition is assigned with a red color. Unfortunately, this color is dominant on the maps presenting the state of the water bodies in Poland. It should be noted, however, that this is due to a simple principle, the practical effects of which the authors of the Directive may not have foreseen. It is enough that one indicator does not meet the requirements for a good status and then the status of the assessed water body is considered as bad. For this reason, there is no improvement which can be seen. This is probably the biggest disadvantage of the assessment system, consisting in the fact that it is possible to achieve an improvement in terms of all the indicators, except for one, and this improvement may even be significant, because for example, from the 5th class of the ecological status there was a jump by two classes, and this one indicator is the whole time determines that the final assessment of the water body is still in a bad condition. This means that millions of euros can be spent on corrective actions, and the effect on the map and in tables is still not visible. This is becoming a political problem as some countries are debating what is the point of spending more money on a remedial action, since the effect is not visible. And the second reason for this is the fact that new indicators are added to the pot of assessed indicators from time to time, which changes the entire situation.

How important is the water management plan for the average Pole?

The water management plans show how public money will be spent. If you look at it from a practical point of view, then the water management plans and public consultations related to them are the possibility of jointly defining the priorities in the water management. Would we like the wastewater management to be tidied up in the first place, waterways built, or maybe we think that we should focus on the development of hydropower? Or maybe something entirely different? Perhaps we would like to see the possibility of the recreational use of water being taken care of in the first place and the cleanliness of the beaches and bathing waters to be dealt with. So we set priorities for 6 years and decide where we should invest the most. It is worth mentioning that in the middle of each cycle, we submit a report to the European Commission on the implementation of the measures aimed at ensuring a good water status. For the Commission, it is a tool to check how the Community's money is spent and how effective it is.

And what do the water management plans mean in practice for the average citizen? Is it, for example, building the water and sewage systems?

And yes and no, because the construction of the sewage system is to a large extent an investment planned by local governments and included in the "National Program for Municipal Wastewater Treatment", which at the same time constitutes the largest part of the proenvironmental measures included in the draft of the second update of the water management plans.

So, for example, can a Mr. Kowalski take part in the public consultations and say that he would like to have access to the water supply?

He should go to the commune. The commune is responsible for the water and sewage management, and it plans the activities and investments in this area. However, it should be remembered that every investment should be backed by an economic bill and common sense. It is not possible to build a water supply or sewage system everywhere, for example for economic reasons.

You can read about the results of the public consultations in the "Summary of the public consultations IIaPGW - how did we inform the society?" article.

What is the role of the local governments in the water management plans? Do local governments have any specific tasks?

Of course they do. The water management plans are documents which contain very varied activities, also covering issues such as the spatial development or waste management. These activities also include tasks for municipalities, and include, for example, the verification of the environmental protection programs, ordering and improving the wastewater management, or the reclamation of lakes.

There is much talk in the water management plans about the so-called water bodies. What are they and how are they determined?

Imagine the Vistula River flowing through various cities. For example, the Vistula in Cracow and the Vistula in Warsaw are a river of a completely different nature. It has a different width, shape of the bed; the speed of the water and its quantity are different. Seemingly the same river, but completely different conditions. It is impossible to apply one measure to the entire Vistula river, from its sources to the mouth of the river, and to set a uniformly parameterised environmental target for it. The natural conditions characterising this river in its upper and lower reaches are quite different. Therefore, we divide it into fragments, taking into account its naturally diverse nature, and we call these sections the water bodies. Summarasing, a water body is simply a water management unit designated according to the specific hydrological and hydrogeological criteria.

What types of water bodies do we have?

We are mainly talking about the following categories: flowing waters, which means, watercourses (rivers, streams etc.), lakes, coastal and transitional waters (for example, Zalew Szczeciński, Zatoka Pucka). Within these categories, we distinguish between the natural water bodies and the artificial and heavily modified bodies. The artificial ones are the of man-made water bodies, such as canals. On the other hand, the heavily modified are those sections of rivers or lakes which have been transformed by man for a specific purpose. An example may be dam reservoirs, for example, the Włocławski reservoir. The artificial and heavily modified water bodies have their own, individually assigned environmental goals, because it is known that bringing them to the state characteristic for a good natural water body is impossible. On the other hand, if this transformation no longer fulfills its role, then we can consider restoring such a river to its natural state, which is associated with a change in the status of the water body from a strongly changed to a natural one. This, in turn, makes it necessary to implement measures aimed at ensuring the achievement of the environmental goal defined as a good ecological status.

What are the anthropogenic pressures?

These are all the activities ehich result from the human activity. In other words, it is the influence of humans on the aquatic environment. In our planning analyses, we take into account those activities which have a negative impact on the condition of water, such as the water abstraction or sewage discharges.

What are the environmental goals? How are they determined?

Here we have to come back to the definition of the water bodies. This division results from the characteristics of our rivers and lakes which are reflected in the typology of the waters. Thus, we distinguish, for example, great lowland rivers, silicate and carbonate mountain streams, or small upland rivers. Each of the water bodies is assigned to an appropriate type, and for them there are established the so-called reference conditions, i.e. the values of the biological indicators, the characteristic of conditions not disturbed by the human activity. It is from this point that the limit values for the 5 ecological status classes are determined, with each subsequent class being a greater deviation from the undisturbed conditions. The environmental goal is at least a good condition, that is, the second class of the ecological status (a slight deviation from the reference conditions). In addition, there is a goal in the form of a good chemical status, which is assessed in two classes (a good condition and less than a good condition) on the basis of the results of the monitoring of the chemicals harmful to the aquatic environment. The simultaneous achievement of these two objectives, i.e. a good or very good ecological status and a good chemical status, means meeting the directive objective of a good water status.

How does Poland look like in terms of the water quality compared to other European countries?

We are not in the tail, but we have to remember that we have the welfare of the waters. We have both rivers and over a 1000 lakes, as well as transitional and coastal waters. As a result, we have a lot of tasks to keep them in the best quality or restore them to a good condition. Besides, we have years of backlogs. We will not improve the status of the waters without specific measures. 

What types of waters do we have the greatest backlogs with?

It is impossible to clearly indicate such waters. We certainly need to take measures to reduce the negative impact of the agriculture on water, to organise the wastewater management and reverse the unnecessary physical changes. It is all about regulating the rivers and partitioning their beds, which is not always necessary. Often such accusations are made by the environmental organisations. At the same time, the reports of the European Environmental Protection Agency confirm that one of the main pressures on the European scale are the hydromorphological transformations, i.e. resulting from the human interference with the nature of the watercourses and lakes.

What is the state of the water in the lakes? What is the situation of the Masurian lakes?

Fortunately, Masuria is not heavily influenced by the agricultural pressure or industry, but tourism is a threat to it. Here there is a huge role for local the governments, for example, organising the tourism and sewage management, including ensuring the collection of the sewage from boats' toilets, the protection of lake shores against devastation, regulating the issue of bans on sailing with motor equipment.

Let's go back to the agriculture. Why is it such a big problem and does it apply only to Poland?

It is a problem for the whole Europe. Nitrogen and phosphorus compounds from fertilizers run off the fields into the rivers and lakes. In an extreme case, they can lead to the so-called choking, that is, the lack of oxygen in the water. These rivers flow into the Baltic Sea, and we have to remember that not only are we the most populous country in its catchment area, but also the two largest rivers flow into this sea from our territory: the Vistula and the Oder. Therefore, this impact, its scale of harmfulness is much greater than in the case of other Baltic countries. It is worth mentioning that the Baltic Sea is a specific sea, firstly it is shallow, and secondly it is very dependent on the influence of the saline waters from the North Sea through the Danish Straits. Due to the climate change, these influences are becoming rarer, which, in combination with the overstatement of the Baltic Sea, causes an oxygen deficit and the formation of dead, oxygen-depleted, bottom zones. Therefore, reducing the agricultural pressure has become a priority for the Baltic countries.

The eutrophication of the Baltic Sea - what does it result from and why is it such a big problem?

The eutrophication leads to the death of the ecosystem and the death of the Baltic Sea. As I mentioned before, oxygen is consumed as a result of the fertilization and then the decomposition of the matter. There are dead zones where there is no life. We deal with these issues as part of the "Marine Protection Program", which we are also currently updating.

Człowiek poprzez swoje działania wpływa negatywnie na stan wód. I tu z pomocą przychodzą działania naprawcze, które znajdują się w planach gospodarowania wód. Czym jest zestaw działań naprawczych?

Wszędzie tam, gdzie po analizach wykonanych w ramach przygotowań kolejnej aktualizacji planów gospodarowania wodami widzimy, że jednolita część wód nie osiąga dobrego stanu albo jest w dobrym stanie, ale istnieje zagrożenie, że się on pogorszy, wprowadzamy działania naprawcze. Są dwa pakiety dotyczące zestawu działań naprawczych: podstawowy –wynikający bezpośrednio z przepisów prawa oraz działania uzupełniające, które wdrażane są wszędzie tam, gdzie podstawowe są niewystarczające. Mogą one dotyczyć udrożnień, renaturyzacji czy też kampanii edukacyjno-informacyjnych. Ostatecznie zawsze ich celem jest poprawa stanu wód.

Wydawałoby się, że najlepszej jakości są wody górskie. Czy tak jest rzeczywiście?

Tak to prawda, im bliżej gór, a tym samym źródeł rzek, tym mniej zanieczyszczeń zdąży się dostać do wody. To co obserwujemy na odcinku Wisły w Warszawie to „dorobek” kilkuset kilometrów i całej zlewni powyżej. Źródłem zanieczyszczeń jest też powietrze, z którego do wody dostają się np. wspominane już związki azotu czy też substancje chemiczne, takie jak np. benzo(a)piren.


These contaminants do not disappear. Even when they end up in a sewage treatment plant, they have to be neutralised in some way, right?

Yes, and some of these substances are also hazardous to the environment. We have, for example, a problem in Europe with the neutralisation of pharmaceuticals. The removal of these substances from the wastewater is difficult and expensive, and for some of them no technology is available at all.

We talk a lot about the water quality. What about the quantity? What is the bigger problem - quality or quantity?

It depends on what waters are we talking about - the underground or the surface ones. The underground facilities are generally in a better condition, both quantitatively and qualitatively. When it comes to the surface water, a few years ago I would have said that the qualitative aspect is the bigger problem. However, for several years we have been feeling the problem of water shortages more and more intensely and we observe with concern the phenomenon of drought, the effects of which can be seen, for example, on the Vistula River in Warsaw. Thus, the quantitative aspect becomes the dominant problem.

Recently, there have been calls for not to water the gardens during the summer period due to the lack of water.

For watering gardens and home lawns, it is best to use caught rainwater. It is a pity to use treated water from the network for this purpose, because we have its shortages. In Warsaw, it may seem to us that there will be plenty of water in the taps, because the infiltration intakes under the Vistula's bottom will still draw water. It should be remembered, however, that the energy industry in our country is based mainly on coal, and conventional power plants with open cooling systems take water from the rivers. I remember a case from a few years ago, when the water level in the Vistula River was so low that it was literally 1 cm short of the minimum required to draw water for the cooling for one of the power plants. Limiting the possibility of water abstraction for the technological purposes would mean the need to reduce the energy production, or even shutting down power plant units. Additionally, less water in the river also means that it heats up faster, which in turn leads to exceeding the allowable temperature of the cooling water and may also lead to restrictions in the operation of some power plants. Thus, the aspect of the lack of water becomes more and more felt and does not only concern the issue of providing it to the population.

On the one hand, it is said that the glaciers are melting and flooding us, and on the other, that there is not enough of it.

The melting glaciers will not provide water in the rivers, they will raise the water level in the oceans, because I understand that we are talking about this phenomenon in the context of Antarctica or the North Pole, and not the retreating mountain glaciers. In this case, the challenge will be to protect land areas against flooding, especially those located below the sea level, such as the Polish Żuławy. But the melting of the glaciers is not only the rise in the level of seas and oceans, it is also the irreversible changes in the climate as a result of disturbing the circulation of the natural ocean currents.

Let's go back to the topic of the corrective actions. Is the National Water Management Authority responsible for their implementation?

In the water management plans, we propose a whole range of activities, indicating the units appropriate for their implementation. Among them are local governments, ministries and the National Water Management Authority. Of course, the assignment of these tasks takes into account the scope of competences specified in the statutory regulations.

How does water affect the average citizen? What can it do to improve the status of the waters?

We should save water, for example by catching the rainwater for watering the gardens. Besides, there are programs encouraging to use it, and the local governments subsidise such projects. Let's use dirty water, for example, after washing the floor in an apartment, to flush the toilet. Let's not wash cars in gardens with water and detergents, especially by the river. Let's not water our gardens and lawns at noon, in the biggest sunshine. Let's not litter in the vicinity of rivers and lakes, let's not throw the garbage into the water. Let's take care of the tightness of our septic tanks for sewage and ensure their regular emptying.

See the campaign "Water is not a rubbish" 

How many people work on the development of the draft of the water management plans?

Dozens of people, our employees and external experts worked on the water management plans for 9 river basin districts in Poland. On the other hand, a dozen or so teams of experts worked during the entire 6-year planning cycle. In my opinion, about 200-300 people were involved in this project in total.

Summarising: what budget is foreseen for the improvement of the water status in the next 6-year cycle?

I will not answer this question because the water management plans do not provide funding for the proposed remedial actions. This is not an investment plan. The documentation includes only the financial forecast, which means, the estimated budget needed to implement such activities. The plans do not provide money or identify its sources. They do not guarantee any financial mechanism. On the other hand, they present the cost of implementing all the actions proposed in the plans, which we estimate at around 26 billion PLN.

The water management plans at a glance.


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