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Brussels, 11 February 2010

European Commission: Nitrate pollution falling, but greater efforts still needed to meet water quality standards across the EU

A European Commission report published today reveals that nitrate levels in waters across the EU are falling. The report shows that the implementation of legislation to prevent nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters is proving effective. However, in some regions, nitrate concentrations exceed EU water quality standards and farmers need to continue to adopt more sustainable practices.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: " Safeguarding water quality is a top priority for European environment policy. Farmers have worked hard to improve fertilisation management, which is now yielding benefits and improving water quality trends. However, in some regions, meeting EU water quality standards remains a serious and continuing challenge."

Encouraging water quality trends but important challenges remain

The agricultural use of nitrates in organic and chemical fertilisers has been a major source of water pollution in Europe. While nitrates are a vital nutrient to help plants and crops grow, high concentrations are harmful to people and nature.

Today's report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive, which aims to control pollution and improve water quality, shows a trend towards steady or falling nitrate concentrations within the EU. Between 2004 and 2007, nitrate concentrations in surface water (including rivers, lakes and canals) remained stable or fell at 70% of monitored sites. Quality at 66% of groundwater (below ground surface) monitoring sites is stable or improving.

However, despite these encouraging trends, the report reveals a number of regions where nitrate levels are worrying. High nitrate concentrations are found in groundwater in parts of Estonia, south-east Netherlands, Belgium (Flanders), UK (England), several parts of France, northern Italy, north-east Spain, south-east Slovakia, southern Romania, Malta and Cyprus. Particularly high concentrations are found in surface waters in Malta, UK (England), Belgium (Flanders) and France (Brittany).

According to the report some 15% of groundwater monitoring stations and 3% of surface stations found nitrate concentrations above the water quality standard of 50 mg/l.

Work in progress

Good monitoring is crucial and involves setting up high-quality monitoring networks for ground, surface and marine waters. There are currently 31,000 groundwater sampling sites in the EU and 27,000 surface water stations.

More than 300 different action programmes are in force across the EU and the quality of these programmes is improving. Measures include periods when fertilisation is prohibited, minimum storage for livestock manure, and rules to control the spread of nutrients near water or on slopes to reduce the risk of contamination. These measures also have important benefits for air quality and help reduce emissions of the greenhouses gases nitrous-oxide and methane, both major contributors to climate change.

Member States have designated territories vulnerable to nitrate pollution to which specific action programmes apply. Some Member States (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Slovenia) have decided to apply action programmes to the whole territory to provide the same level of protection countrywide.

While actions to inform and train farmers have resulted in much better fertilisation management and agricultural practices, further work is still needed to achieve water quality goals in all EU waters. Many Member States need to step up efforts in a number of areas, including monitoring and identifying pollution hotspots as well as developing tougher action programmes.

New technologies offer new ways to deal with pollution

The report notes growing interest from farmers in innovative feeding methods which reduce nutrient excretion as well as in new technologies such as manure processing. Techniques range from simple separation into solids and liquids, to more advanced techniques processing the slurry into clean water and high quality organic fertilisers. This is often combined with techniques for energy recovery. Groups of farmers have invested in cooperative projects, notably in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.


A report on the implementation of the Directive is carried out every four years, based on information from national authorities. In 2008-2009, all 27 Member States made formal submissions for the period 2004-2007. See the full report at:

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