REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE COUNCIL AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT on the implementation of Council Directive 91/676/EEC concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources based on Member State reports for the period 2016–2019

Nutrients such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are essential elements for the plants. They are often used as fertilisers in agriculture to guarantee higher yields and quality products. However, the increasing demand in food production has resulted in an increased production and use of fertilisers associated with considerable inefficiencies, leading to pollution of water, air and soil, affecting human health and the environment.

At a global level, N and P surplus into the environment are already exceeding safe planetary boundaries, representing a severe threat to nature as well as to the climate 1 . Europe makes a considerable contribution to this form of pollution and the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that in Europe the limit for N losses is exceeded by a factor of 3.3 and the limit for P losses by a factor of 2 2 .

The Biodiversity 3 and the Farm to Fork 4 strategies set a common objective of reducing nutrient losses in the environment by at least 50% by 2030, while preserving soil fertility. Council Directive 91/676/EEC 5 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (“the Nitrates Directive”) is a key piece of legislation to achieve this target and other objectives of the EU Green Deal 6 .

The Nitrates Directive constitutes also a basic measure under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) 7 , which requires all European surface waters – lakes, rivers, transitional and coastal water, and groundwater – to reach “good status” by latest 2027. Together with the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) 8 , the Nitrates Directive plays a key role in improving the status of EU water bodies, as nutrient pollution is one of the main causes for failure of good status 9 , 10 . Furthermore, the Nitrates Directive is an essential instrument to prevent nutrient pollution of coastal and marine waters under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) 11 , 12 .

The Nitrates Directive requires Member States to:

–identify waters affected and at risk of being affected by nitrates pollution as well as designate as Nitrates Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) the areas draining into these waters where agriculture contributes significantly to this pollution;

–develop action programmes with measures reducing and preventing nitrates pollution, apply such programmes to NVZ or to the whole territory, and to reinforce these measures as soon as it appears that they are not sufficient to achieve the objectives of the Directive.

It also requires the Commission to inform the European Parliament and the Council every four years on the state of the implementation of the Directive based on Member States reports.

This report is accompanied by a Staff Working Document (SWD(2021) 1001) which includes maps and tables on indicators of nutrient pressures from agricultural sources, water quality and designated NVZ.

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