1. Organisation of the Service
The provision of the water and sanitation service is provided through the local councils, although it is an enormous task for many rural councils, most of whom lack the resources and expertise to undertake the task on their own.
Accordingly, the organization of the service (and an increasing number of other services) is usually carried out on an inter-communal basis, in which several communes work together in the provision of the service.
The service is known as services d’eau potable et d’assainissement, carried out by a body called the Syndicat d’Eau et Assainissement.
Around three quarters of local councils organise the water distribution service in this way, whilst around half organise the pubic sanitation services on an inter-communal basis.
The role of smaller councils in the provision of water and sanitation services is gradually being removed to the inter-communal bodies.
The Syndicat may manage directly the water supply, or contract it out to a private company, eg Veolia, Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux, Saur.
The nature of these private sector contracts does vary, and there is a lot of controversy in France about the role of private companies in local water supply services. We covered this issue in an article in our Newsletter entitled Water Companies Making ‘Abusive’ Profits.
The Syndicat (or private operator) may also manage the sanitation services, although there may be separate organisational arrangements for water and sanitation. Thus, whilst a local council may work an inter-communal basis for the water supply, it may manage sanitation services on its own.
Just to confuse the picture, a separate body (though often the same) also regulates private sewerage systems. This body is called the Service Public de l´Assainissement Non Collectif (SPANC).
At a national and regional level, responsibility for the management of water capacity and the control of water pollution resides with six water agencies (Agences d’eau), organized on the basis of river basins, ie, Adour-Garonne, Artois-Picardie, Rhin-Meuse, Loire-Bretagne,Rhône-Méditerranée and Corse, and Seine-Normandie.
These six authorities charge the local councils and others for abstraction of water and pollution management, some of which is then recycled to the councils to assist in investment in water treatment plants, as well as providing support to farmers and industrial users.
2. Opening an Account
When you have completed your house purchase you should visit the offices of the local Syndicat, who are normally located in the mairie.
You should take along a copy of a certificate of ownership (called an attestation) that should have been provided to you by the notaire, as confirmation that you are the new owner of the property.
If you have no existing supply to your property, provided there is a building already there, or a planning consent in place, the local mairie are obliged to make a connection, but you will pay the connection cost.
You will normally be expected to pay the connection charge in advance of the work being carried out.
No-one is obliged to be connected to the mains water service, but if you use a private water supply for drinking water you are required to notify the mairie and to satisfy them that it reaches a satisfactory standard. Around 99% of properties in France have access to a public water supply.
3. Water Charges
The level of water charges in France varies by commune as the cost of running the service will depend on many factors, not least of which is the level of investment being undertaken in water and sewerage services by the statutory agencies – the local councils and the regional water agencies.
Whilst water and sewerage charges in France remain modest, the costs have risen more noticeably in recent years, in large measure because of the need to undertake investment in sewerage systems.
Nevertheless, these increases remain below the average across Europe, as other countries also take steps to invest heavily in water and sewerage treatment in order to comply with EU regulations.
Your water supply is metered, so your bill comprises a fixed standing charge (abonnement) and a variable consumption charge. You water meter will be read at least once a year.
In urban areas the fixed percentage represents up to 30% of the charge, while in rural areas, it can be as high as 40%. This fixed charge is to ensure the authorities have a minimum level of income in order to provide the service.
In some regions the variable element is also degressive, so that some larger consumers pay a higher rate.
Whilst the level of charges varies by commune, on average the amount payable for water services is around €2.00m3 (2017), with the cost of mains sewerage at about the same rate. Accordingly, the average combined bill for water and sanitation services is around €4.00m3 (2017), although it will vary by area, and it will be less if you are not connected to mains drainage. The level of the charge is one of the lowest in Europe.
In practice, this gives an average annual bill in the order of €200-€400 for those on mains drains. However, to repeat, this is only an average national figure.
Although those with no mains drainage will not receive an annual bill for drainage, they will be required to pay for the periodic (nominally every 4 years) inspection of their septic tank system undertaken by the 'SPANC'.
Despite the relatively modest water bills received by households, water charges are not equally spread between the different users.
Thus, farmers consume 80% of the water yet pay only about 4% of the cost. This form of subsidy gives no encouragement to farmers to save water, or adopt farming techniques that minimize the use of water. Things are changing, but very slowly.
Your water bill will state the cost of water per m3, and it will also state the cost per litre.
The bill will set out how the consumption and fixed charges have arisen, although rarely in a form that is easily comprehensible!
The charges will include the cost of distribution of the water supply, the cost of the sewerage services, and the levies imposed by the water agency.
These levies relate to investments by the water agencies, such as la redevance pour la modernisation des réseaux de collecte d’eaux usées and la redevance pour pollution de l’eau d’origine domestique.
If you are not connected to mains drainage, then you will not pay the charges relating to sewerage treatment, other than the pollution charge.
4. Drinking Water Quality in France
Rigorous testing of the drinking water supply does take place in France, and figures from the relevant agencies indicate that there is almost 100% compliance with EU standards.
In a 2014 survey around 80% of French residents expressed their confidence in their water supply, a figure that has been rising over the past decade.
Nevertheless, there are many French who prefer not to drink tap water, and drink instead from bottles purchased in the local supermarket.
If you want to find out about the water quality in your area then you can do so by visiting your local mairie who will have available information on water quality tests carried out.
You can also visit the prefecture who are actually responsible for water quality testing.
Each year, you should receive a report on the quality of water in the area from the prefecture, a report which each mairie is required to send to its inhabitants.
You can also go on the site of the French water agencies and read their technical reports, or visit the web site of the prefecture in your area.
There is also the government website from which can find the most recent quality tests for your commune.
The situation regarding waste water treatment is less satisfactory, with numerous regions in France having been reprimanded by the European Commission because of their failure to comply with EU Directives on the discharge of waste water.
However, substantial investment is taking place with a view to ensuring compliance, although there is frequently resistance from the agricultural lobby.
5. Droughts in France
In various departments throughout France, there are often restrictions imposed on the use of water due to water shortages.
If you wish to know whether or not your department is affected then you can get more information by visiting Propluvia.
If you have a dispute about your bill or the service you receive you should take it up with the Syndicat in the first instance.
If you are unable to resolve the matter to your satisfaction you can make a complaint to the Médiateur, at Médiation de l’Eau – BP 40 463 – 75366 Paris Cedex 08. There is a standard form to complete.
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