The EU Water Framework Directive puts watermills at risk

Members from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands recently raised at the European Heritage Legal Forum an issue about the EU Water Framework Directive. This European Union Directive came into force in 2000 to achieve good status of all water bodies (rivers, lakes, coastal waters, etc.). The original target implementation date was 2015, but it has been derogated out to 2027. One part of the directive called ‘River Basin Management’ aims for restoring the ecological continuity of rivers, namely allowing fish migration and sediment flow. In this new context, most Member States have instructed their Water Agencies to implement mitigation measures against the obstruction of rivers.

The European Heritage Legal Forum interrogated its member countries on the impact of the Water Framework Directive on cultural heritage and it appears that many encountered difficulties with the preservation of their watermills. The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Estonia, and Sweden all reported concerns about the future of their water-based heritage. River classifications have indeed already been conducted with a first list imposing a ban on all new river obstructions and restorations, and a second list compelling within 5 years to adapt existing mill-weirs. Cases of historic mills being dismantled across Europe have grown for the past years.

In France, the ‘Federation of Associations for the safeguard of Mills’ opposes to the programmed destruction of thousands of mills. Mill owners currently appeal to the national representation to take into account a “cultural exception” in order to exempt mills from these excessive constraints which are jeopardising the cultural, touristic and historic heritage of France. More than the physical construction in itself, the heritage value emanates from the ‘watermill-landscape’ and the  craftsmanship of the miller which are the result of hundreds of years of human use. In addition to presenting this undeniable heritage value, mills in function contribute to sustainable development challenges and the energy transition (hydraulic production). Hydropower is one of the most productive and competitive renewable energy. The Federation argues that the regulation adopted in France is economically unsustainable - small owners having to pay adaptation works or the government financing the destruction of mill-weirs amounting to several hundred thousand Euros. Moreover, it blames Water Agencies to underestimate the other impact factors damaging the aquatic environment (pollution, medicines impacts on water quality, overexploitation of natural resources, invasive species, and climate change) and from which mills cannot be held responsible. To answer these protests, the French Minister for Ecology, Ségolène Royal, sent a letter to all the Prefects in December 2015 asking them not to concentrate their efforts anymore on constructions presenting a heritage value. A participative procedure should from now on be encouraged between all stakeholders and the demolition or not of mill-weirs decided on a case-by-case basis.

Picture depicting a watermill in the Netherlands where a fish passage and a new bridge have been built due to the WFD. The wheel can no longer run free and is hanging in the water, which will accelerate its deterioration.

© Wouter Pfeiffer

The refitting of existing watermills should not become automatic and experts suggest to revaluate the environmental objectives of the application of the Directive and to examine its cost-effectiveness. The question of the “Effects of the Water Framework Directive on water mills with hydroelectric potential” was even raised at the European Parliament in February 2014 (link here). The Commission gave the following answer:

“Typically water mills are operated by a water flow diverted from a river using a weir. Depending on the size and configuration of the water mill and the river it can indeed be an obstacle to fish migration and hence prevent the achievement of the Water Framework Directive(1) (WFD) objective of good ecological status in the affected water bodies. In some cases it may be possible to implement mitigation measures (for example by installing a fish pass). It is for the Member States to assess how the objectives of the WFD are to be achieved in each case.”

The European Heritage Legal Forum would like to remind that a cost-benefit analysis should first be used to decide removal or non-removal of the object. According to Article 4(7)(c) of the Water Framework Directive (link here), Member States will not be in breach of the Directive if they do not proceed to modifications for reasons of “overriding public interest”, or when “the beneficial objectives served by those modifications of the water body cannot for reasons of technical feasibility or disproportionate cost be achieved by other means, which are a significantly better environmental option” (Article 4/7/d). It is therefore important for stakeholders to highlight that mills need water flow to be preserved in function and that their environmental performance should be revaluated in the light of their capacity to produce clean energy and on their heritage value. In the hundreds of years that millers used rivers, there seemed to be no problem with fish migration. Heritage professionals would like to stress that these problems and changes only arose in the last decades. Are the mills and their weirs truly the main cause of such disruption? Lastly, if we interpret the WFD in the light of the EU Floods Directive and the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment Directive), then the current actions undertaken by Water Agencies in some countries are in complete contradiction with the environmental objectives of these two directives.

In Flanders, local stakeholders and heritage professionals cannot stop the Water Framework Directive either, but the Flemish administration has found a way for all the different agencies responsible for rivers and waters to cooperate. One party respects the fact that fish migration as well as restoring the physical condition of watercourses is necessary while the other party respects the ancient rights of mills to use the water as well as the heritage legislation which allows mills to stay in function. Thanks to this mutual understanding, they can work together to install fish stairs and other alternatives without loss of the amount of water required to run the mill. Recent adaptation works in Flanders show very good examples with fish stairs hardly visible in the landscape.

National governments should take care that mill owners are not faced with the dilemma of either destroying their mills under public funds or being constraint to equip themselves at exorbitant costs with river crossing systems. The European Heritage Legal Forum believes that an appropriate legal formulation should be found which would benefit the preservation of traditional systems of using the water streams and include revitalisation of cultural heritage along with revitalisation of river basins. In conclusion, let’s not forget that the physical cultural heritage is an element of the environment just as water is and that the measures implemented at national level under the WFD which are detrimental to the physical cultural heritage are not in accordance with the primary intentions of the EU Commission.


To read the ‘Guidance Document on exemptions to the environmental objectives’ of the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), go to:

For further information on the French situation, please visit the following website:


Written with the contribution of Mr. Wouter Pfeiffer (mill-specialist in the Netherlands).