Luchtfoto landschap met molen

At the behest of the European Parliament, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has formulated a report on how EU European Union (European Union) member states are dealing with European regulations on nitrogen in water (nitrate). RIVM received this request because the institute has a great deal of knowledge and experience when it comes to monitoring nitrogen in water through the Minerals Policy Monitoring Programme (LMM). 


The request was prompted by questions that European citizens have raised on this topic. Similar questions are common in the Netherlands too, both in parliamentary debates and in various media. The report addresses a variety of aspects related to nitrogen monitoring in water. For example, it explains the legal framework and describes the design and comparability of nitrogen monitoring systems in water. The effects of nitrogen in water on human health and ecosystems and the results of the policy in operation are also discussed. Finally, the report explores the possible impact of the Green Deal on reducing  nitrogen pressures from agriculture on groundwater and surface water. 

The European Parliament Committee on Petitions (PETI) approached RIVM based on the experience the institute has from projects as the Minerals Policy Monitoring Programme and the Horizon2020-project FAIRWAY. 

Current status

In Europe, a good water quality strongly depends on the degree to which agricultural leaching of nitrogen can be reduced further. To achieve a good water quality,  member states are bound by European legislation, such as the Nitrates Directive and the Water Framework Directive, to monitor water quality and to demonstrate that they are meeting the targets set by these directives. 

Nitrogen levels in water are being measured in many places under this legislation. Nevertheless, member states are free to decide for themselves how they design the monitoring network. Which is important, as regional characteristics (e.g. soil type and groundwater level) and the concentrations themselves play a significant role in the design of a monitoring network. Measuring frequency and number of measuring sites therefore differ from country to country, which makes it more difficult to compare the water quality within Europe. 

What is the impact of nitrogen in water?

Crops do not use all the nitrogen from fertiliser and manure. Residual nitrogen is largely leached into water in the form of nitrate. Excess nitrate results in excessive levels of nutrients in the water. This has adverse effects on the quality of water intended for use in drinking water production. In addition, excessive levels of nutrients in surface water encourage the growth of algae and disrupt ecosystems.