Among the greatest achievements for water quality in the past 25 years is that countries have stopped dumping large quantities of untreated urban and industrial waste water into rivers, says the report. However, “advances are slow. We won’t meet our targets,” says Bruyninckx.

But not all ecologists are so worried. The state of Europe’s fresh water is “not as bad as it sounds”, says Alan Jenkins, deputy director of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, headquartered in Wallingford. Jenkins says that legislators’ targets for improving water quality were unattainable — so it is not surprising that they were not met. “Generally, Europe’s rivers and streams function pretty well,” he says, although he agrees that high nitrate concentrations are a problem, causing periodic toxic algal blooms across the continent.

Biodiversity loss

Europe’s biodiversity is also ailing, the report shows. Some 60% of species and 77% of habitats assessed between 2007 and 2012 are in an “unfavourable” condition, and need greater protection. Both of these figures have increased by around ten percentage points from an assessment in 2001–06. But it is not clear whether the changes are attributable to declining conditions or to an increase in the number of species and habitats reviewed.

Bruyninckx applauds Europe for increasing the proportion of land and marine water under protection since the previous assessment. But he says that the biodiversity trends send a “strong signal” that further action is needed. Biodiversity is declining globally, and many scientists warn that it is reaching a critical point at which harm will become irrevocable. Many internationally agreed targets for protecting biodiversity by 2020 are likely to be missed.

Bruyninckx says that Europe’s leaders must not shy away from tackling the continent’s environmental challenges, which he says are set to increase with climate change and population growth: “The current policies do not suffice.”