|Main authors:||Froukje Maria Platjouw, Harriet Moore, Susanne Wuijts, Sandra Boekhold, Susanne Klages, Isobel Wright, Morten Graversgaard and Gerard Velthof|
|FAIRWAYiS Editor:||Jane Brandt|
|Source document:||»Platjouw F. M. et al. (2021) Coherence in EU law and policy for the protection of drinking water resources. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 6.1R 200 pp|
Here we discuss the legal requirements imposed by the Nitrates Directive on states and/or the farming industry with a focus on ecological, monitoring and reporting, public participation (including farmer organisatons) and coordination requirements. The ecological requirements are subjected to a (vertical) coherence assessment of their contribution to FAIRWAY's objectives of protecting drinking water resources against pollution by nitrates and pesticides from agricultural practices. Finally we subject the NDto a (horizontal) coherence assessment with the Water Framework, Groundwater, Drinking Water and Pesticides Directives to see how well each supports or constrains and counteracts the others.
Details of the analyses are contained in the Appendices of the full report:
|1. Overview of the Nitrates Directive|
|2. Contribution of the Nitrates Directive's requirements to achieving FAIRWAY's objectives|
|3. Coherence of the Nitrates Directive with other directives|
1. Overview of the Nitrates Directive
The 1991 Nitrates Directive (ND) deals with the relationship between agriculture and water quality and aims to reduce water pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources and to prevent further such pollution. Nitrates pollution from agriculture is a major problem in some parts of Europe, causing eutrophication of freshwater ecosystems and increasing costs to water providers who have to undertake additional treatment of abstracted water to meet drinking water standards. In order to reduce and prevent water pollution caused by nitrates pollution originating from agricultural sources, member states must monitor waters, designate so-called nitrates vulnerable zones and then adopt and implement action programmes and codes of good agricultural practices with the aim of improving fertiliser management and preventing nitrates leaching towards waters. To assess the effectiveness of these actions, monitoring programmes must be put in place. Full implementation of the directive should deliver waters that do not exceed 50 mg/l of nitrates and are not eutrophic as a result of agricultural nutrient losses.
The ND requires that member states establish a voluntary code of good agricultural practices available to all farmers throughout the country, and a mandatory action program, which should be applied either within nitrates vulnerable zones or throughout the whole country.
Nitrates vulnerable zones (NVZ), which are areas that drain into waters that are polluted or at risk of pollution, shall be designated by member states. When establishing the nitrates vulnerable zones, the member states may, instead of designating specific zones, opt to apply an action programme throughout the entire agricultural land. The member states that designate specific areas need to define the criteria for designation. These criteria are based on the definition of polluted waters as set by Annex 1 of the Directive but can vary between member states.
Action programs include measures to limit the period when the land application of fertilizers is allowed; balanced nitrogen fertilization; a limit to the application of manure nitrogen; and limitations to application of nitrogen fertilizers on sloping soils, during wet conditions, and near watercourses. Additional measures that can be taken include land use management, crop rotation, and winter crops. The Directive allows the possibility to derogate from the maximum amount of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year from livestock manure in vulnerable zones, provided that objective criteria set in Annex III to the Directive are met and that the derogated amounts do not prejudice the achievement of the Directive's objectives.
The standards of management required of farmers who benefit from derogations are higher than those of the action programmes, with additional obligations for nutrient planning and extra constraints on land management. Derogations are granted by means of a Commission Implementing Decision, following the opinion of the Nitrates Committee, which assists the Commission in the implementation of the Directive.
The designation of nitrates vulnerable zones and action programmes should be reviewed at least every four years. Member states are also obliged to submit a progress report on the implementation of the Directive every four years with information on codes of good agricultural practice, nitrates vulnerable zones, water monitoring results, relevant aspects of action programmes.
2. Contribution of the Nitrates Directive requirements to achieving FAIRWAY's objectives
Table 2. 4 Requirements and objectives of the ND
|Label||Requirements and objectives of the Nitrates Directive|
|Reduce pollution||To reduce pollution of ground-, surface and estuarial water by nitrates from agricultural sources, and prevent further such pollution (art. 1)|
|Limit livestock manure||Amount of livestock manures applied on land shall not exceed 170 kg/ha each year. (Annex III)|
|Limit groundwater pollution||MS apply common criteria for water pollution. Groundwaters should not contain more than 50 mg/l nitrates, and surface waters should not be eutrophic. (Annex I)|
|Identify vulnerable zones||MS shall identify vulnerable zones which drain into waters which are or could be affected by pollution within a 2-year period (art. 3.2). Concertation in case of transnational vulnerable zones (art. 3.3)|
|Establish codes of agricultural practice||MS shall establish codes of good agricultural practice: MS shall submit details (art 4.1a and 4.2) and set up a programme for the promotion of codes of good agricultural practice (art 4.1.b). (these measures are obligatory in NVZ)|
|Establish action programmes||MS shall establish action programmes in respect of the designated vulnerable zones or part of it (art. 5.1 to 5.4)|
The average across all scores given by respondents for the interaction between all requirements of the ND and the FAIRWAY objectives suggests that respondents perceive these requirements contribute highly positively (M = 2.5) to the protection of drinking water resources against nitrates from agricultural practices. However, there was variability between scores for individual requirements. Figure 2.4 demonstrates that respondents perceive that the requirements to reduce pollution by nitrates (Art. 1 ND) is clearly indivisible (+3) for the protection of drinking water resources; 90% of the respondents gave a score of +3 to this requirement. Also the requirement to limit groundwater pollution is considered to be indivisible (+3) pursuant to 80% of the respondents.
Participants suggested that the requirements to identify vulnerable zones (Art. 3.2 ND) and action programmes (Art.5.1 ND) also contribute positively to the protection of drinking water resources; 70% of the respondents agreed the interaction is indivisible (+3), while the remaining respondents scored the requirements either as being enabling (+1) or reinforcing (+2).
The explicit limit to the amount of livestock manures applied on land (170kg/ha each year) (Annex III), is generally considered to be a positive contribution to achieving the FAIRWAY objective. However, there was a high variety among the scores. While 60% of the respondents suggested the interaction is indivisible (+3), other respondents suggested the interaction is reinforcing (+2), enabling (+1), neutral (0), and in one instance, constraining (-1).Thus, expert opinions are more divided about the interaction between this requirement related to a specific value and pollution limit, compared to more general requirements about reducing pollutants, and enacting programmes.
Responses to open-ended survey items give some explanation about the overall positive scores, and variability between scores for different provisions. In general, the ND is considered to contribute positively to the protection of drinking water resources against pollution by nitrates from agricultural practices, since the ND is aimed at improving drinking water quality and reducing nitrates pollution. However, experts were divided about the contribution of specific pollution limits, such as the limit of 170 kg N per ha of animal manure. Respondents suggested that having one target for all member states may not be effective as implementation varies significantly between states. One respondent suggested that in some cases it may be appropriate that higher levels of fertilizer use are permitted, providing that the sum amount of manure and fertilizer application is appropriate. Similarly, another respondent suggested that in certain catchment areas, threshold levels could be higher without adversely affecting water quality, while in other areas the threshold level should be lower to protect water quality. Further, designation of nitrate vulnerable zones is considered to be helpful to designate zones with nitrate problems and to implement effective measures to decrease nitrates leaching in these areas. The designation in combination with implementing measures and monitoring, as 43 required by the ND, contributes positively to the protection of drinking water resources. Similarly, a code of conduct, as required by Art. 4.1 ND, should be accompanied by an effective enforcement mechanism to ensure its positive contribution to the FAIRWAY objective.
These findings are consistent with the divided responses given about the contribution of threshold values under the GWD; experts are divided about whether fixed thresholds are effective in all circumstances. Further, some of these responses may be related to knowledge about the Directives. For example, the suggestion that fertilizer and manure contributions should be considered cumulatively, rather than limited by prescriptive thresholds, is accounted for in the actions programmes of the ND. This may reflect the need for increased knowledge about directive requirements within policy and management spheres.
3. Coherence of the Nitrates Directive with other directives
The ND contains several requirements and objectives. For the purpose of this assessment, we asked respondents to score four key requirements related to establishing a framework, national action plans, measures, and regulations. These four requirements have been assessed and scored in terms of their coherence with key requirements of the WFD, GWD, DWD, and PD.
Table 3.5 Four key requirements of the ND
|Reduce pollution||To reduce pollution of ground-, surface and estuarial water by nitrates from agricultural sources, and prevent further such pollution (art. 1)|
|Livestock manure limits||The amount of livestock manures applied on land shall not exceed 170 kg/ha each year. (Annex III)|
|Groundwater limits||Groundwaters should not contain more than 50 mg/l nitrates, and surface waters should not be eutrophic. (Annex I)|
|Vulnerable zones||Identify vulnerable zones which drain into waters which are or could be affected by pollution within a 2-year period (art. 3.2). MS shall establish action programmes in respect of the designated vulnerable zones or part of it (art. 5.1 to 5.4)|
Art. 1 ND requires member states to reduce pollution of ground-, surface and estuarial water by nitrates from agricultural sources, and prevent further such pollution. It has been assessed to what extent the requirements of the WFD, GWD, DWD, and PD are coherent with this, and whether there are any requirements that impede the attainment of the aim to reduce pollution.
Overall, the scores assigned suggest that the directives are perceived to contribute positively to the aim to reduce pollution (M = 1.5). However, the average scores for the four directives varied considerably. All requirements under the PD are scored as neutral (0). It is likely that this is because the PD does not apply to nitrates. The respondent scores did not identify any negative interactions between the aim to reduce pollution by nitrates and the PD.
Both the WFD and the GWD are perceived as highly contributive, with average scores around 2.7. Many WFD and GWD requirements are considered to be indivisible (+3). These include: requirements related to the protection of surface waters (Art. 1 WFD), the prevention of deterioration (art. 4.1(a)(i) WFD), institutional requirements of the WFD (Art. 3.1, 7, 11.1, and 13.1 WFD), the prevention and control of groundwater pollution (Art.1 GWD), threshold values (Art. 3.1 GWD), and the possible need for more strict threshold values (Annex 1, GWD).
For the purpose of reducing pollution by nitrates, no negative interactions have been identified between the ND and the WFD, GWD, DWD and PD. These results are consistent with scores indicating the cohesion between requirements to protect resources and reduce pollution, and the requirements of other directives.
Livestock manure limits
Annex III of the ND stipulates that the amount of livestock manures applied on land shall not exceed 170 kg/ha each year. It has been assessed to what extent the requirements of the WFD, GWD, DWD, and PD are coherent with this, and whether there are any requirements that impede the attainment of this objective.
Scores for all directives and all individual requirements suggest that project partners believe that all interactions with the requirement about manure application are neutral (0). The respondent scores contained no variability, suggesting that for the purpose of complying with these livestock manure limits, the WDF, GWD, DWD and PD incur no significant positive or negative interactions whatsoever. According to the respondents, only a restriction of breeding intensity or a restriction on the number of animals per hectare could support the 170kg/ha limit positively. It should be stressed here that there appear to be diverging interpretations of the requirement related to livestock manure limits; is this requirement about the amount of manure contribute from cattle or about the amount of manure that farmers can use on crops and apply themselves like a fertilizer. There are diverging views on the scope of this requirement,.
Annex I ND stipulates that groundwater should not contain more than 50 mg/l nitrates, and surface waters should not be eutrophic. It has been assessed to what extent the requirements of the WFD, GWD, DWD, and PD are coherent with this, and whether there are any requirements that impede the attainment of this objective.
Overall, the scores assigned suggest that the directives are perceived to only contribute minimally to the attainment of groundwater limits (M = 0.5). The DWD and the GWD are considered to be most contributive, with average scores of 0,5 and 1,5 respectively. The WFD and the PD are scored as being neutral (0), with no variability in scores among the requirements.
The requirements that contribute the most to groundwater limits were judged to be the requirements of the GWD setting threshold levels applicable to good chemical status (Art. 3.1 GWD), and the possible need for more strict values where threshold values from Annex II (50 mg/L for nitrates) are not sufficient to prevent damage to environment (Annex I, GWD). Both of these requirements are considered to be reinforcing (+2) the groundwater limits for nitrates. The respondents commented that long retention periods for groundwater, low rainfall levels, and denitrification may also influence nitrate concentrations in drinking water.
In the context of groundwater limits, no negative interactions have been identified between the ND and the WFD, GWD, DWD and PD. These results contrast with scores given to other requirements related to specific threshold values; in other instances, project partners presented conflicting perspectives suggesting that there are negative risks associated with adopting fixed thresholds. Overall, the scoring for groundwater limits suggests that project partners feel the fixed thresholds related to nitrates may be more appropriate than other fixed thresholds, such as limits to contaminants in groundwater.
Art 3.2 ND requires member states to identify vulnerable zones which drain into water bodies which are or could be affected by pollution within a 2-year period, and to establish action programmes in respect of the designated vulnerable zones or part of it (art. 5.1 to 5.4 ND). It has been assessed to what extent the requirements of the WFD, GWD, DWD, and PD are coherent with this, and whether there are any requirements that impede the attainment this requirement.
Overall, the scores assigned by the project partner for the cohesion between the vulnerable zones requirement and other directives suggests that the directives are perceived to be only slightly contributive (M = 0.6). However, the average scores showed great variability. The requirements of the DWD and the PD are considered to be neutral (0). This suggests that identifying vulnerable zones and establishing action programmes for those zones are unrelated to the DWD and the PD.
The requirements of the WFD were scored as neutral (0) or enabling (+1). In contrast, the interaction between requirements under the GWD and the requirement to establish vulnerable zones are considered to be highly positive (M=2.3). Several GWD requirements were scored as being indivisible (+3). These include the requirements to prevent and control groundwater pollution (Art.1 GWD), requirements related to threshold values (Art.3.1 GWD), and the need for more strict threshold values (Annex I, GWD).
Thus, while the DWD and PD were viewed as unrelated to vulnerable zones, requirements related to groundwater and the WFD were considered to be highly related. These perspectives warrant further investigation. Scoring was conducted subjectively. Therefore, it is of interest to identify why some factors are considered to be more important for vulnerable zones than others. For example, it may be useful to determine why requirements related to drinking water were considered ‘neutral’, while requirements related to groundwater were considered highly important for identifying vulnerable zones. It is possible that, as suggested in the section above addressing the DWD, drinking water requirements are perceived to be separate from requirements that pertain to wider catchment processes, such as vulnerable zones.
For the purposes of identifying vulnerable zones and establishing action programmes, no negative interactions have been identified between the ND and the WFD, GWD, DWD and PD. Respondents emphasized that regulations on water protection do not necessarily help with the establishment of nitrates vulnerable zones, which might be a quite practical task.
Overall, various positive interactions between the requirements of the ND and other directives were identified. No negative interactions were detected.
Of note, compared to other directives, numerous interactions were viewed to be ‘neutral’. There are several explanations for this. In some instances, it is likely that these perspectives reflect a genuine lack of connectivity between ND objectives and other directives, particularly with regards to requirements under the PD. However, in some cases, these perspectives may reflect the more complex nature of interactions between nitrate levels and other environmental concerns. This is consistent with the conclusions of Section 2 above which suggested that less direct interactions may be more difficult to identify and score accurately.
Also, of interest is the fact that fixed thresholds related to the ND were viewed positively, compared to other fixed thresholds examined in relation to other directives. This may reflect the varying opinions of multiple project partners. Alternatively, the fixed thresholds related to nitrate concentrations may not produce the same risks as those identified in relation to other directives, such as concentrations of contaminants in groundwater.
Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see