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The Nitrates Directive 

What’s new?

11/10/2021- Publication of the latest Commission report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive:

19/10/2020 – NAPINFO: publication of the final report on the identification of approaches and measures in action programmes under the Nitrates Directive and the database of measures from Member States’ action programmes

16/09/2020 - JRC report on Technical proposals for the safe use of processed manure above the threshold established for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones by the Nitrates Directive

17/07/2020 - Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2020/1074 granting a derogation requested by Denmark

13/07/2020 - Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2020/1073 granting a derogation requested by the Netherlands

02/07/2020 - Water: The Commission is calling on Spain to protect its waters from nitrate pollution

02/07/2020 - The Commission is urging Belgium to comply with the EU's Nitrates Directive

03/10/2019 - Court of Justice confirms standing of individuals to challenge Nitrate Action Programmes

25/07/2019 – Water pollution: Commission urges Germany to implement judgment on breach of EU rules on nitrates

The Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (the Nitrates Directive) was adopted on 12 December 1991. It aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices.

The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against agricultural pressures.

More information on the aims, implementation and impact of the Nitrates Directive can be found in the Factsheet on the Nitrates Directive, in the Questions and Answers document and on the following infographics:


For the implementation of the Nitrates Directive, the Commission is assisted by a Committee of Member States representatives

Also, the Expert Group for the implementation of the Nitrates Directive provides an informal forum of discussion between the Commission and the Member States on technical aspects linked to the implementation of the nitrates directive and nutrients policy.

1. Identification of water polluted, or at risk of pollution, such as:

  • surface freshwaters, in particular those used or intended for the abstraction of drinking water, containing or that could contain (if no action is taken to reverse the trend) a concentration of more than 50 mg/l of nitrates
  • groundwater containing or that could contain (if no action is taken to reverse the trend)  more than 50 mg/l of nitrates
  • freshwater bodies, estuaries, coastal waters and marine waters, found to be eutrophic or that could become eutrophic (if no action is taken to reverse the trend)

2. Designation as "Nitrate Vulnerable Zones"(NVZs) of:

  • areas of land which drain into polluted waters or waters at risk of pollution and which contribute to nitrate pollution; or
  • Member States can also choose to apply measures (see below) to the whole territory (instead of designating NVZs).

The current status of NVZ and whole territory designations can be viewed using the map viewer on the website of the Joint Research Centre.

3. Establishment of Codes of Good Agricultural Practice to be implemented by farmers on a voluntary basis. Codes should include:

  • measures limiting the periods when nitrogen fertilizers can be applied on land in order to target application to periods when crops require nitrogen and prevent nutrient losses to waters;
  • measures limiting the conditions for fertilizer application (on steeply sloping ground, frozen or snow covered ground, near water courses, etc.) to prevent nitrate losses from leaching and run-off;
  • requirement for a minimum storage capacity for livestock manure; and
  • crop rotations, soil winter cover, and catch crops to prevent nitrate leaching and run-off during wet seasons.

4. Establishment of action programmes to be implemented by farmers within NVZs on a compulsory basis. These programmes must include:

  • measures already included in Codes of Good Agricultural Practice, which become mandatory in NVZs; and
  • other measures, such as limitation of fertilizer application (mineral and organic), taking into account crop needs, all nitrogen inputs and soil nitrogen supply, maximum amount of livestock manure to be applied (corresponding to 170 kg nitrogen /hectare/year).
  • Recommendations for establishing Action Programmes are available (2012 study) for each of the type of measures to be included in Action Programmes, according to the pedo climatic region in Europe, so to minimize risk of water pollution.

5. Limits to the application of nitrogen from manure: in areas covered by Action Programmes, the Directive prescribes that the highest amount of nitrogen from manure that can be applied annually is 170 kg/ha. At the request of Member States, and provided that they justify scientifically that this shall not lead to higher pollution, the Commission can adopt implementing Decisions (commonly referred as “derogations”) that allow the application of higher maximum limits of nitrogen from manure in specific areas and under particular conditions. Such derogations do not exempt Member States from the water quality objectives of the Directive, nor from any other of its measures. The Commission Decisions that allow for the application of more than 170 kg/ha of nitrogen from manure that are currently in force are listed below:

6. National monitoring and reporting. Every four years Member States are required to report on:

  • Nitrates concentrations in groundwaters and surface waters;
  • Eutrophication  of surface waters;
  • Assessment of the impact of action programme(s) on water quality and agricultural practices;
  • Revision of NVZs and action programme(s)
  • Estimation of future trends in water quality.

Reports and studies

The 4-yearly reports produced by the Member States are used as the basis for a 4-yearly report by the European Commission on the implementation of the Directive.