Urban water reuse regulations plod ahead in EU

Much-needed regulation to promote the use of reclaimed urban water for agricultural irrigation across Europe have plodded ahead following movement at the European Council (EC).

The new regulation is designed to help remove obstacles to enable widespread reuse of urban water as an “alternative water supply”, as well as lessen the vulnerability of current supply systems.

The EC has now adopted, by written procedure, a regulation required to facilitate the use of treated urban wastewater (reclaimed water) for farming uses.

By increasing urban water reuse, it would ensure there is enough water available during heatwaves and severe droughts and help prevent potential “crop shortfall and food shortages”, the commission said.

Estimates suggest that by increasing the amount of water reused for agriculture from 1.7 billion cubic metres to 6.6 billion cubic metres, it would reduce water stress by five per cent.

However, EU countries will still make the decision as to whether it is appropriate to use reclaimed water, depending on geographic and climatic conditions.

Circular economy action plan

While the reuse of treated urban water is widely recognised for its lower environmental impact, with Spain leading the European wastewater reuse market since 2010, the process is only practised to a limited extent in the European Union.

Identifying the reasons for such low uptake, the EC attributes it mainly to economics.

Two of the main reasons include “the high investment needed to upgrade urban wastewater treatment plants and the lack of financial incentives for practising water reuse in agriculture”.

So what are the next steps? The latest decision means that the Council has adopted its position at first reading.

However, before it can be published in the Official Journal, the regulation now needs to be adopted by the European Parliament at second reading.

Here the European Parliament will examine the EC’s position and either:

  1. Approves it: the act is adopted
  2. Rejects it: the act will not enter into force and the whole procedure ends
  3. Proposes amendments and returns the proposal to the Council for a second reading.

It was at the end of May in 2018 when the European Commission adopted the proposal for a regulation on the minimum requirements for water reuse.

This was part of wider ambitions on the 2015 circular economy action plan, which including actions to help “facilitate water reuse, including a legislative proposal on minimum requirements for reused water”.

Then on 12 February 2019, the European Parliament adopted its position on the proposal.

This falls in line with the 7th Environmental Action Programme, as well as the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.