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Nitrates on the rise in Europe’s waterways, new report finds

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Little progress has been made over the last decade when it comes to nutrient pollution from agriculture, a new European Commission report shows.

Nitrates from livestock manure and mineral fertilizers have been a major source of water pollution in Europe for decades, as about half of the nitrogen applied in Europe is lost to the surrounding environment. Excessive nitrates in water are harmful to both human health and ecosystems, causing oxygen depletion and eutrophication, the report states.

For the period 2016-2019, across EU member states, 14.1% of groundwater still exceeded the 50 mg of nitrates per litre limit set for drinking water, the report found. A high percentage of groundwater monitoring stations still show levels that are above the threshold in Malta, Germany, Luxemburg, Spain, Portugal and Belgium (Flanders region).

“The implementation of the Nitrates Directive over the last 30 years has undoubtedly increased water quality overall in the EU,” announced Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans. “We also see that real efforts to switch to sustainable methods are paying off. 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 sustainable agriculture and protect our precious water supply,” he added.

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Reaching a reduction of nutrient losses by 50% by 2030 is set in the context of the EU Green Deal.

Nitrate concentrations, however, have dropped in both surface and groundwater in the EU compared to the situation prior to the adoption of the Nitrates Directive in 1991. The Directive forces countries to identify waters that are affected and at risk from nutrients, develop reduction and prevention plans, then file progress reports.

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, whether induced by nitrates or also phosphorus.

The report also noted that progress has been made to increase sustainability in the agricultural sector.

“Considerable progress has been made regarding the development of manure processing technologies,” the report states. “Recovered nitrogen that replaces inorganic fertilizers reduces CO2 emissions, while recuperated phosphates reduce dependency on imported phosphate rock, and remaining organic fractions can be used on local fields.”

The EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan, which aims to reduce pollution in air, water and soil to levels no longer considered harmful to health and natural ecosystems by 2050, will also reduce nutrient pollution.

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