The European Commission has warned that nitrates are “still causing harmful pollution to water” in the EU and that the “pace of change” to protect water quality is “not enough”.

The latest commission report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive (based on data for 2016-2019) has been published, with the commission emphasising that excessive nitrates in water are “harmful to both human health and ecosystems, causing oxygen depletion and eutrophication”.

“Where national authorities and farmers have cleaned up waters, it has had a positive impact on drinking water supply and biodiversity, and on the sectors such as fisheries and tourism that depend on them,” the commission said.

“Nevertheless, excessive fertilisation remains a problem in many parts of the EU.”

Urgent action needed to protected water quality

Virginijus Sinkevicius, Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, said that the implementation of the Nitrates Directive over the last 30 years has “undoubtedly increased water quality overall in the EU”.

“We also see that real efforts to switch to sustainable methods are paying off,” he said.

“However, the pace of change is not enough to prevent damage to human health and preserve fragile ecosystems.

“In line with the European Green Deal, more urgent action is now needed to achieve a sustainable agriculture and protect our precious water supply.”

Nitrate concentrations have fallen in both surface and groundwater in the EU, compared to the situation prior to the adoption of the Nitrates Directive in 1991.

However, the new report reveals that “little progress” has been made over the last decade and nutrient pollution from agriculture is still a “serious concern” for many member states.

For the period 2016-2019, across member states, 14.1% of groundwater still exceeded the nitrates concentration limit set for drinking water.

According to the findings, water reported as eutrophic in the EU includes 81% of marine waters, 31% of coastal waters, 36% of rivers and 32% of lakes.

Overall, the quality of national action programmes has improved, but in many cases, the measures in place are “not sufficiently effective” in fighting pollution in areas where agricultural pressure has increased.

Climate change impact in tackling nitrates pollution has to also be better factored in at national level, the commission said.

About half of the nitrogen in fertiliser and manure applied in Europe is lost to the surrounding environment. In economic terms, this amounts to a loss of potential benefits to farmers of around €13 to €65 billion/year.

The overall environmental costs of all reactive nitrogen losses in Europe are estimated at €70 to €320 billion/year, much beyond the costs of reducing pollution at source.