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.

The European Commission was assisted by a Committee of Member states who provided a discussion between the Commission and the Member states to lead a detailed analysis concerning the different technical aspects linked to the Nitrates directive.

First of all , it was important to identify all of those areas which was concerned by the nitrate pollution. In this way, the Committee in charge of the identification of water polluted or at risk of pollution, could determine the “Nitrate Vulnerable Zones”, also called ( NVZs).

Thus, the European Commission proceeded with the establishment of Codes of Agricultural Practice to be implemented by farmers. The Commission stated that the application of nitrogen fertilizers should be limited in order to target application to periods when crops require nitrogen and prevent nutrient losses to waters. It also required a minimum storage capacity for livestock manure and crop rotations and catch crops to prevent nitrate leaching and run-off during wet seasons.
These measures are based on a voluntary basis, therefore, the EU provided some compulsory action programs to be followed and implemented by farmers.

These measures require that all the actions already included in Codes of Good Agricultural Practice, are now mandatory in NVZs. The Directive imposed to the Member states other binding measures, as the limitation of fertilizer application and limits to the application of nitrogen from manure.

Under the Directive, all Member States have to analyse their waters’ nitrate concentration levels and trophic state. Good monitoring is crucial, and means setting up high-quality monitoring networks for ground, surface and marine waters.
The EU developed a monitoring strategy every four years, to report on the implementation of the Directive, based on information from national authorities.

The European directive for preventing nitrates pollution is part of the framework of EU legislation to protect the environment by reducing nitrates and imposing strict rules to be implemented by farmers and the Member States.

This Directive by reducing the nitrates pollution, it motivated the states to invest on new technologies, in order to reduce the amount of nitrates in water. For example, innovative manure processing initiatives are growing and they can offer new ways to deal with pollution.

The overall is generally positive; infact, within the EU, water quality is getting better and cleaner. it is also extremely important to underline that the area of EU territory subject to the implementation of action programmes has exponentially grow.
More in detail, 70% of surface waters are moving in the right direction, together with 66% of groundwater.

Cuts in livestock numbers and fertiliser use are helping, but agriculture is still a big source of nitrogen in surface waters. For this reason, many Member States need to improve their monitoring strategy, by identifying pollution hotspots, and realise efficient action programs.

In conclusion, the Commission will continue to work with Member States, supporting them in order to achieve the Directive’s objectives.