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Strategies to make reclaimed water available for reuse in agriculture

By Platform

During our webinar on water reuse and the European Green Deal the Policy Learning Platform received a question about cost recovery parameters for the treatment of reclaimed water in the Region of Murcia (Spain). The question came up after the presentation from Manuel Boluda Fernandez (Directorate General of Water Management, Region of Murcia) on strategies to make reclaimed water available for reuse in agriculture.

Manuel pointed out that in the Region of Murcia they perform disinfection of treated wastewater to ensure the highest possible removal of pathogens from discharges. In this view this is particularly important because their river (the Segura river) has a very low flow and allowing the release of substances that would worsen the microbiological quality of its waters would compromise any river uses.

Manuel specified that disinfection costs are currently bore by all water consumers, regardless of the fact that reclaimed water is reused or discharged. However, he also admits that any costs likely to be additionally sustained to make reclaimed water eligible for reuse under the highest quality classes foreseen by the new Water Reuse Regulation will in principle need to be paid by the final users of such water, contrary to what happens in Murcia today, where farmers are currently exempted from paying for the additional costs sustained to treat reclaimed water used for agricultural irrigation purposes.

Additional policy elements

The integration of economic aspects in river basin management permeates EU water legislation. Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive, in particular, lays down the principle of recovery of the costs of water services (which include the treatment of waste water for reuse purposes), as well as the conditions for its application. With regard to the Water Reuse Regulation, which will apply from June 2023, it is worth specifying that its goal will be to facilitate the uptake of water reuse whenever it is appropriate and cost-efficient (i.e. rather than imposing water reuse everywhere, the Regulation will create an enabling framework for those Member States who wish or need to practice it). Furthermore, from the text of the Regulation it is possible to understand what the intentions of the co-legislators were in relation to the recovery of costs sustained for water reuse.

To this end it is worth looking at recital 13 which specifies the following: 'The high investment needed to upgrade urban waste water treatment plants and the lack of financial incentives for practising water reuse in agriculture have been identified as being among the reasons for the low uptake of water reuse in the Union. It should be possible to address those issues by promoting innovative schemes and economic incentives to appropriately take account of the costs and the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of water reuse'.

This suggests that, according to the European Parliament and the Governments of the 27 EU Member States, based on cost-benefit analysis it is possible to strike a balance and find solutions not to charge treatment for water reuse disproportionately, thus avoiding the risk of disincentivising such practice, which contributes more than others to the transition towards to circular economy and to climate adaptation.

Concerning the current state in which the general application of the principle of recovery of the costs of water services lies, I would like to draw your attention to a passage of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament in December 2020, in response to the conclusions of the European Commission on the fitness check of EU water legislation.

The resolution states as follows: '[the Parliament] Regrets that the application of the cost recovery principle, which provides that all water users effectively and proportionately participate financially in the recovery of the costs of water services, remains low to non-existent in several Member States, especially with regard to households, industry and agriculture; stresses that water use in some parts of the EU threatens the quantitative status of bodies of water beyond the level of maintained ecological flow; calls on Member States and their regional authorities to implement adequate water pricing policies and fully apply the cost recovery principle for both environmental and resource costs, in line with the WFD, and also apply the polluter pays principle; recalls that the cost-recovery principle may be applied with regard to its social, environmental and economic effects, as well as the geographic and climatic conditions of the regions affected'.

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