The implementation of the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires nationally generalizable estimates of the benefits of protecting inland and coastal waters. As an alternative to benefit transfers and meta-analyses, we utilize national recreation inventory data combined with water quality data to model recreation participation and estimate the benefits of water quality improvements. Using hurdle models, we analyze the association of water clarity in individuals' home municipalities with the three most common water recreation activities--swimming, fishing and boating. The results show no effect on boating, but improved water clarity would increase the frequency of close-to-home swimming and fishing, as well as the number of fishers. Furthermore, to value the potential benefits of the WFD, we estimate the consumer surplus of a water recreation day using a travel cost approach. A water policy scenario with a 1-m improvement in water clarity for both inland and coastal waters indicates that the consumer surplus would increase 6% for swimmers and 15% for fishers. In contrast to previously estimated abatement costs to improve water quality, net benefits could turn out to be positive. Our study is a promising example of applying existing national recreation inventory data to estimate the benefits of water quality improvements for the purposes of the WFD.