Nitrogen is a crucial nutrient that helps plants and crops grow, but high concentrations are harmful to people and nature. Pure, clean water is vital to human health and to natural ecosystems. Excess nitrogen from agricultural sources is one of the main causes of water pollution in Europe.
Nitrates and organic nitrogen compounds from fertilizer and manure enter groundwater through leaching and reach surface water through runoff from agricultural fields. A high level of nitrate makes water unsuitable as drinking water.
In rivers, lakes and marine waters, nitrogen and other nutrients, in particular phosphorus, stimulate the growth of algae. At moderate levels, algae serve as food for aquatic organisms, including fish. However, excessive nutrient concentration in water systems will cause algae to grow excessively. This affects the natural ecosystem and can lead to depletion of the oxygen in the water. This phenomenon, known as eutrophication, has negative consequences for biodiversity, fisheries and recreational activities.
Both phosphorous and nitrogen play a role in eutrophication, but while the main cause of eutrophication in fresh water is phosphorus, it is mainly caused by nitrogen in marine water.
The Nitrates Directive aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources that pollute ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices.
The Directive aims to reduce water pollution caused by nitrates used in agriculture by
- monitoring nitrate concentrations of water bodies
- designating nitrate vulnerable zones
- establishing codes of good agricultural practices and measures to prevent and reduce water pollution from nitrates
In the EU
The Nitrates Directive requires EU Member States to monitor the quality of waters and to identify areas that drain into polluted waters or at risk of pollution. These concern waters that due to agricultural activities are eutrophic or could contain a concentration of more than 50 mg/l of nitrates. Those areas are defined as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs).
The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the overarching Water Framework Directive and is one of the key laws protecting waters against agricultural pressures.
- areas of land that drain into polluted waters or waters at risk of pollution and which contribute to nitrate pollution; or
- EU Member States can also choose to apply measures (see below) to the whole territory (instead of designating NVZs)
- the current status of NVZs and whole territory designations can be viewed using the map viewer
- measures limiting the periods when nitrogen fertilisers can be applied on land to target application to periods when crops require nitrogen and prevent nutrient losses to waters
- measures limiting the conditions for fertiliser 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
- measures already included in Codes of Good Agricultural Practice that become mandatory in NVZs; and
- other measures, such as limitation of fertiliser 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/ha/year);
- recommendations for establishing action programmes are available for each type of measure to be included in action programmes, according to the pedo climatic region in Europe, so as to minimise the risk of water pollution.
- the Action Programmes need to be revised at least every four years. National action programmes under the Nitrates Directive are accessible in the NAPINFO database.
In areas already polluted by nitrates, the Directive prescribes that the highest amount of nitrogen from manure that can be applied annually is 170 kg/ha. At the request of EU 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.
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:
- Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2022/696 granting a derogation requested by the Netherlands
- Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2022/696 granting a derogation requested by Ireland
- Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2020/1074 granting a derogation requested by Denmark
- 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)
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:
Monitoring and reporting
Every four years, EU Member States are required to report on
- nitrate concentrations in groundwaters and surface waters
- eutrophication of surface waters
- assessment of the impact of (an) action programme(s) on water quality and agricultural practices
- revision of NVZs and (an) action programme(s)
- estimation of future trends in water quality
These 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.
See the most recent (2021) Implementation Report, Commission Staff Working Document,Press release and Questions and Answers.
- 2012-2015 Report and 2012 -2015 Commission Staff Working Document
- 2008-2011 Report and 2008-2011 Commission Staff Working Document
- 2004-2007 Report (Corrigendum) and 2004-2007 Commission Staff Working Document (Corrigendum)
- 2000-2003 Report and 2000-2003 Commission Staff Working Document
- 1996-1999 Report
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.
Studies and publications
Study on Technical proposals for the safe use of processed manure above the threshold established for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones by the Nitrates Directive - JRC Report (2020)
Project on the Identification of approaches and measures in action programmes under Directive 91/676/EEC (2020)
Study on Technical proposals for the safe use of processed manure above the threshold established for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones by the Nitrates Directive (2020)
Resource Efficiency in Practice - Closing Mineral Cycles (2016)
Biogas and digestate (2013 and 2014)
Recommendations for establishing Action Programmes under Directive (2012) - Part A, Part B, Part C and Part D
Manure processing activities in Europe (2011)
The impact of the Nitrates Directive on gaseous nitrogen emissions (2010) - Report and its Annex
Study on variation of manure nitrogen efficiency throughout Europe (2010) - Report, Annex 1 and Annex 2
Related laws: Water Framework Directive
Related topics: Industrial emissions
Related strategies: Circular economy action plan, Zero pollution action plan, Farm to Fork strategy,Biodiversity strategy
Related Commission priorities: European Green Deal
For questions about EU environmental policy, please contact Europe Direct.