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La Mission d'information a nommé M. Gérard Miquel rapporteur le 19 mars 2003
Rapport sur la qualité de l'eau et de l'assainissement en France n° 705 déposé le 19 mars 2003 par M. Gérard Miquel

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Texte du rapport (site du Sénat) - Tome 1
Texte du rapport (site du Sénat) - Tome 2


The quality of water and water collection and treatment systems in France
By Mr. Gérard Miquel, Senator (2003)
The Parliamentary Office report was produced at the request of the French Parliament and entrusted to Mr. Gérard MIQUEL, Senator of the Lot, a specialist on environmental issues in the Office. He was given a threefold mission:
- to draw up a pedagogical document for elected officials and their staff. The purpose was not, therefore, to prepare quality maps nor draw attention to a particular region but to give elected officials scientific and technical references and elements of information to enable them to respond to the concerns of fellow citizens. The report is therefore presented in two volumes : one for non-specialists and the other composed of 90 technical appendices for use by local staff.
- to make an assessment of public policies governing the preservation of the quality of water resources. A large number of reports have indicated an appreciable overall deterioration in the quality of water resources. There is no need of yet another report to be convinced of this situation. The damage has been done. The deterioration is symbolic of the failure of public policies and the regulatory or incentive instruments implemented.
- to open up areas of reflection on recuperative strategies to be followed. Two approaches were possible. The first consisted of identifying the malfunctions in existing mechanisms in order to step up their efficiency; the outcome of the previous water Bill showed that this was a perilous solution. The second consisted of proposing new bases, new orientations of undoubted audacity but appropriate for the issues at stake.
A. The quality of water
1. Analysis of the quality of water calls for three precautionary approaches.
The first is evident: not all water to be found in nature is drinking water. There is the water generated in our subsoil (the geochemical basis determines the quality of underground water, as is the case for arsenic, for example) and also the water produced by our society - and this water is very poor. Even rain water contains metal, pesticides (with a 24 microgram per litre record , i.e. 200 times the standard applicable to drinking water).
The second precaution consists of making conservative assessments. All scientists warn against making over-hasty judgements. Rain has a tremendous effect on the pollution of subsoil and surface water, due to its impact on the transfer or dilution of pollutants. Maps are very easy to manipulate, particularly if colours are used, and regional comparisons are very sensitive since results are completely different, depending on whether pollution peaks or averages are measured.
The third precaution consists of keeping in mind the European framework in which we are placed. Water quality must be assessed in relation to the criteria laid down by the European framework directive of 23 October 2000 which establishes the good chemical, ecological and quantitative condition of water as its objective.
2. Who is responsible for water pollution?
In brief, there are three sources of water pollution.
Industrial, organic and chemical pollution are the more clearly identified sources. Our industrial heritage often leaves a field of ecological ruins that affect ground water (water tables under coal slag heaps), surface water (cadmium in the Lot) or both, by the transfer of pollution from one to the other (as is the case for potash fertiliser that is pumped into the water table and discharged into the Rhine). However, due to strict regulations, efficient mobilisation and efforts made with equipment, pollution from industrial sources is generally under control.
Organic pollution of domestic origin is the oldest type. It is basically associated with the discharge of waste water. Although there is still room for considerable progress, waste water management is making suitable progress. Refuse dumps should also be mentioned, the role of which as regards pollution is overestimated, and individual drilling operations, the importance of which, on the other hand, is underestimated. Badly designed, maintained and closed drilling operations are direct columns of pollution to ground water, bringing polluted and non-polluted water tables into contact. Anarchic sampling can also lead to irremediable marine intrusion phenomena. As a result, part of the pollution of the water is caused by the people taking the samples. Professionals are aware of this domain but it is often ignored and calls for greater vigilance and rigour than at the present time.
Pollution of various types caused by farming. This is the big question mark. The environmental revolution in industry is over, it is in process on a local authority level but the agricultural revolution has not yet taken place. Water tables and rivers are being affected by the increasing presence, in greater quantities of nitrates and pesticides. We are not bringing any new elements to this dossier which is closely monitored from a technical standpoint and by the media. Slight one-off improvements should not mask the overall unfavourable basic trend (between 50 and 100 water catchment areas are abandoned every year). Heavy rain in recent years has made the phenomenon worse since nitrates are soluble and consequently end up in water tables.
The facts are known. It was not important for us to establish a new pollution map but to understand how this situation came about.
3. Should we be concerned? Yes. Less for public health reasons than because this deterioration points to the failure of public policies.
- At current deterioration levels, health is not affected. However, evolution of the situation should be anticipated and the deterioration is currently masked by pretence giving a false impression of safety: by mixing water, for example, or by opening new, better quality catchment areas elsewhere. The problem now is that "elsewhere" no longer exists.
- Above all, this deterioration reflects a threefold failure on the part of the authorities. The legal instruments at our disposal are not appropriate.
- Laws are out of date. First of all, there is a general-purpose instrument with what are termed catchment area protective boundaries. This system, devised forty years ago to prevent accidental pollution is not tailored to diffuse pollution.
- Laws are flouted. With constancy and regularity. Although the establishment of protective area boundaries has been compulsory for 5 or even 40 years for certain catchment areas, legal obligations are only complied with in a third of cases. These boundaries, possibly appropriate when devised, are impossible to implement 20 or 40 years later.
- Laws cannot be controlled. How can it be otherwise, when a decree specifies twelve different spreading distances in relation to a river or stream, depending on the type of effluent, soil, slope, etc., or the article on the taxation of agricultural pollution in the previous bill on water alone came to 73 pages! The primary objective is simplification.
The second failure is that of our organisation.
- First of all, organisation at State level. Water is policed by over 500 departments. There is an acknowledged lack of resources and skills. The State can no longer cope with its missions which leads to repeated difficulties: insufficient feedback of information, insufficient inspections and sanctions.
- Secondly, the organisation of our local authorities. A municipal framework is not tailored to the protection and management of water.


Rapport de M. Gérard Miquel, Sénateur, le 18 mars 2003
Les Français ont-ils raison de s’inquiéter de la dégradation de la qualité de l’eau ? Que peuvent faire les pouvoirs publics pour y remédier ? Tout indique que la prétendue priorité accordée à la protection de l’eau, patrimoine de la nation, n’en est pas une. Elle doit le devenir. Le rapport de l’Office, en partant d’un constat critique de la situation actuelle, vise trois objectifs : - élaborer un document pédagogique destiné aux élus et à leurs équipes, - établir un bilan des politiques publiques de préservation de la qualité de la ressource, - ouvrir quelques pistes de réflexion sur les stratégies de reconquête à suivre.

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