1. Drinking water supply in Denmark - general context

The Danish drinking water supply is entirely based on groundwater. The government’s official position is that drinking water should be of sufficient quality that it only needs simple treatment (e.g. aeration and filtration) before it is distributed to the consumers.

The Danish water supply structure is highly decentralized with approximately 2,600 public waterworks supplying five million inhabitants. The remaining approximately 0.4 million use water from approximately 70,000 private wells (Nature Agency 2012). Public water supply is the main source of drinking water, bottled water consumption being amongst the lowest in the EU and only one fifth of the EU average (UNESDA 2014).

Approximately, 63% of the Danish land area is used for agriculture with intensive use of fertilizers, manure and pesticides. This can be a challenge to some water suppliers if they abstract groundwater from vulnerable, unprotected or shallow aquifers. This is especially the case for many private wells.

Numerous waterworks and wells have been closed because of nitrate pollution (Danish Economic Councils, 2015), and approximately 17% of the Danish area has been classified as nitrate vulnerable groundwater abstraction areas (Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, 2017).

Danish groundwater protection has a high priority and is carried out through 3 principal initiatives:

  1. National level: general agricultural regulation
  2. Municipality level: local action plans based on detailed groundwater mapping
  3. Well level: Extra protection close to abstraction wells (25 m protection zones, BNBO)

National Danish legislation aims to protect ground and surface water from the effect of nitrate loss to the environment, and has introduced several political action plans since 1985. A national groundwater mapping program has been carried out since 1998 with the principal aim of mapping groundwater vulnerability in order to ensure optimal protection of present and future drinking-water resources. Approximately 40% of the total Danish land area is classified as particularly valuable for groundwater abstraction. Local groundwater protection action plans are carried out by the municipalities in order to protect drinking water resources based on the findings from the national mapping program.

2. The particular case of Aalborg and its role in FAIRWAY

The Aalborg area is one of the most vulnerable areas in Denmark in regard to nitrate leaching and pollution of groundwater. A monitoring program has been established and many observations and quantitative data are available for a long period. The data shows that the water contains variable amounts of nitrate and traces of some pesticides.

In the Aalborg area the aquifers are characterized by being vulnerable chalk aquifers, poorly protected from overlying Quaternary deposits. Groundwater recharge is around 200 mm/year. A large public supply company (Aalborg Vand A/S) abstract approximately 7.2 Mm3 y-1 supplying about 119,000 (2016) consumers. The only water treatment is aeration and filtration. Private well owners also exist in the area with higher concentrations of nitrate in the water often due to abstraction from more near-surface aquifers than the Aalborg waterworks.

The land use is mainly intensive dairy farming, pig and crop production.

CS02 Aalborg 600 x 498

In the Aalborg case study the focus is on both nitrate and pesticides. The following working hypotheses have been identified.

  • Common understanding of each other's frameworks and goals as well as better dialogue can increase the possibility of combining groundwater protection and agricultural production.
  • Proven and recognized agricultural practices and technology development can improve groundwater quality.
  • "Participating monitoring" can give farmers better commitment to groundwater protection.
  • Barriers to groundwater protection have been identified.
  • Cost-effective solutions for both farmers and waterworks are identified.

3. Mitigation measures used

In the Aalborg area the municipality and the local waterworks have implemented measures for protection of the groundwater resources against nitrate and pesticide contamination, aimed at reducing their use. Farmers get paid by the waterworks/consumers to change the land use. If the farmers and the waterworks cannot agree on a specific land use and/or compensation, the municipality will require the farmers to do so. It has been a successful measure for the past 15 years. However, today it is difficult to make agreements on groundwater protection based on voluntary measures, probably due to disagreement on the need for implementation of additional groundwater protection. Afforestation has also been a successful measure for groundwater protection.

The challenge in this case study is to improve the collaboration between farmers and the waterworks so that a common understanding and acceptance on protection of groundwater can be found. The aim is for a national understanding on how to find balanced solutions, which benefit both farmers and the waterworks.

4. Current water governance system

Actors and stakeholders involved in water governance and their roles

The present governing system is centralized with the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, and related agencies making all decisions regarding use of agri-environmental measures, including quotas on fertilizer use at farm level, and a demand for relatively high percentage with catch crops. The terms and conditions for the agriculture is highly determined based on EU policy, but national regulations are in place too.

A pesticide is only approved if it is proven that it will not leach from the root zone in a concentration above 0.1 microgram per liter. The approval is followed up by a pesticide alert system. There is a tax which depends of the risk for of, for example, leaching to the groundwater. Farmers have to report records of their use of pesticides to a central database and they are fined if their use of pesticides do not comply with the regulation.

At the regional and local scale the municipality is responsible for protecting groundwater used for drinking water purposes. This is conducted in close collaboration with the water supply companies as stakeholders with the main interest. Other stakeholders are the individual farmer, agricultural advisors and the farmers’ association.

Water quality control processes

The waterworks continuously monitor the groundwater and drinking water quality and follow the trend. If they see a continuous increase in e.g. nitrate or pesticides they start to take action in close collaboration with the municipality. By legislation the permit limit is defined.

The farmer is responsible for management of his own fields. He takes his decisions partly based on information from different decision support tools and agricultural advisors. They are restricted in their choice of farming practice, use of fertilizers, manure and pesticides, measures etc. due to current legislation.

The water quality and farm management targets are at a national level set by national policy and legislation, which is based on EU policy, and recommendations from WHO. However, the local authority may differentiate targets within a vulnerable abstraction area. It might result in stricter targets in local areas closer to the abstraction wells. The water quality targets is primarily based on the policy that drinking water in Denmark should be based on pure groundwater which only needs simple treatment with aeration, and filtration before it is distributed to the consumers. By legislation different permit limits are defined for nitrate and pesticides among others.

The farm management targets are a result of the above drinking water policy, but the targets are primarily part of a regulatory framework guiding/restricting the farming practices and use of fertilizers, manure and pesticides. By law, it is specified that pesticides can only be used if the concentration of the water leaching from the root zone is below 0.1 microgram per liter, and there is relatively high tax on pesticides. The amount that can be used is also regulated as well as when and how often and how they should be stored. The same is applicable for nitrate. However the farmer decides whether to apply the whole quota or not. It can be economical beneficial not to sometimes. On the other hand the farmers are fined if they apply a higher amount of nitrogen, and this is hardly never the case.
The water quality is regularly monitored and controlled by the water works. A whole range of water quality parameters and pesticides are monitored. The national legislation defines a minimum monitoring frequency. The municipality follows up.

The government requires farmers to report in details on field plans for cropping systems and fertilizer use. If the nitrogen use exceed the quota, farmers are fined. By law there is a background regulation of nitrate and pesticides. Implementation of additional measures must be sought by voluntary agreements. Enforcement is the last measure to be applied.

Aalborg Municipality demands performance of nitrate analyses in private wells (>1 households) only every 5th year, and do not demand but urge the owner to perform nitrate analyses in private wells of 1 household as well as pesticides analyses in general. In some circumstances, the municipality allow exceedance up to 100 mg/l nitrate in drinking water from private wells if there is no possibility for connection of the household to a public water supply.

Engagement and multi-actor platforms

There are established boards which should be considered as starting points for the FAIRWAY MAP. Firstly, a “Groundwater board (Grundvandsrådet)” exists maintained at the municipality of Aalborg. The Groundwater board consist of approximately 20 members with different interests (e.g. agriculture, environment, nature, forest, groundwater). Secondly, a drinking water collaboration board called “Water Collaboration Aalborg” also exists within the municipality of Aalborg. Water Collaboration Aalborg is responsible for negotiation of agreements on groundwater protection with the farmers as part of the local action plans for drinking water protection. 

The FAIRWAY MAP for Aalborg includes the municipality of Aalborg, Aalborg Vand A/S (a large public supply company), Water Collaboration Aalborg and local agricultural advisory companies (AgriNord, Økologisk landsforening) as well as the local farmers and private waterworks in the case study site.


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