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Report COM(2002)407 

The Implementation of Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the Protection of Waters against Pollution caused by Nitrates from Agricultural Sources

Synthesis from year 2000 member States reports


Council Directive 91/676/EEC (hereafter referred to as the Nitrates Directive) concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources was adopted on 12 December 1991. A sister Directive 91/271/EEC (Urban Waste Water Treatment) was adopted on 21 May 1991.

Article 10 of the Nitrates Directive requires that Member States submit a report to the Commission every four years following its notification. This report should include information pertaining to codes of good farm practice, designated nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs), results of water monitoring and a summary of relevant aspects of actions programmes for vulnerable zones.

This report was prepared in order to provide an overview of the current situation with regard to the directive together with possible pathways for the future. It illustrates, with some case studies, the positive effects of some farm practices on the quality of water. However, it is emphasised that there is a considerable time lag between improvements at farm and soil level and a response in waterbody quality.



A. General Context 

B. State of implementation of the Directive 

B.1. Overview of exhaustivity of reports. 

B.2. Water Quality 

B.2.1 Water monitoring networks 

B.2.2 Results of water quality survey 

B.2.3 Forecast of water quality evolution 

B.3. Vulnerable zones designation and revision 

B.4. Action Programmes Assessment 

B.5. A preliminary assessment of the economics of Action Programmes 




Although incomplete and lacking of coherence, the water monitoring networks set up by Member States show that more than 20% of EU groundwaters are facing excessive nitrates concentrations, with a continuous increasing trend in the most intensive areas of livestock breeding and fertiliser consumption.

At least 30-40% of rivers and lakes show eutrophication symptoms or bring high nitrogen fluxes to coastal waters and seas. The agricultural origin of these N fluxes accounts for 50 to 80% of total N inputs to EU waters, depending on Member States, watersheds and annual variations (Be, Dk, D, Fr, Irl reports to the EC, and EEA report n° 4 "nutrients in European ecosystems" - 1999).

Following a delay of 5 years or more by Member States to fulfil their commitments for implementation of the Directive and an effective reduction of N losses from agriculture to water, a real improvement can be pointed out in the sensibilisation of Member States during recent years. All M. S. have now transposed the directive, set up a comprehensive monitoring network, established a code of good practice, and designated at least partially their vulnerable zones (except Ireland). Indeed the effects of action programmes, often published only in 1997-1999, will be significant only after some years ("tanker" effect of soil and groundwaters), but success stories can already be noticed in regions where intense field controls, including soil analysis, have accompanied dissemination of good practice advice (e.g. in Denmark, some German Länder, East of France, Algarve).

The gradual orientation of the Common Agricultural Policy to take greater account of environmental issues contributes to the purposes of the Nitrates directive. A CAP more oriented towards quality rather than quantity, encouraging extensive cropping or breeding, "buffer" natural areas and accurate balanced fertilisation, can further contribute to these purposes.

However, the failure of a proper application of the "Nitrate" directive in some Member States cannot be rectified only through CAP measures. Controlling nitrate emission is still primarily the task of transposition and implementation of the "Nitrate" Directive. Cost-efficiency studies on preventive measures should also be encouraged, in order to focus action programmes and practice changes towards the most efficient one.

Besides financial support for a more environmental-friendly agriculture and dissemination of knowledge, it is necessary that all Member States arrive at a full implementation of the Nitrate Directive, reinforce surveys and controls at field level (including checking of fertilisation plans and records, manure storage and handling, soil analysis, natural buffer strips, etc.), and introduce dissuasive penalties for the producers who do not ensure eco-compliance.

  • The Nitrates Directive is now 10 years old, and Member States have in the last 2 years shown a real willingness to improve implementation. They realise that costs induced by drinking water treatment for nitrates excess, or by eutrophication damages in dams or coastal waters will still increase, and that the investments dedicated to urban wastewater treatment will be inefficient regarding nutrients if a parallel effort is not devoted to an effective reduction of agricultural nutrients losses. For this reason; the "nitrates" Directive maintains its full topicality without any need of short term revision, as pointed out by the European Parliament in its resolution (A5-0386/2000), and recognised by the new Water Framework Directive (WFD), which does not introduce any change to its process or deadlines.
  • Nitrogen and Phosphorus will certainly appear as priority polluters in many E.U. watersheds, as promoting cyanophytes (blue algae) problems in lakes and dams, macrophytes and dinoflagellates impairing tourism or aquaculture in coastal waters, etc. Efficiency of investment in preventive measures, on agricultural pressures and practices, or on domestic and industrial discharges, will have to be evaluated and compared. Here also pilot applications and research are urgently needed, as shown by the poor feed back on these "forecast" and "cost-efficiency" items of the Nitrates year 2000 reporting exercise.

Full report