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Runoff from animal farms is a major source of high nitrogen levels that can lead to harmful algal blooms and drinking water pollution.

Although the European Union’s effort to curb nitrogen pollution was put into effect 30 years ago, countries are seeking to do more to comply

In 1991, the European Union (EU) initiated its Nitrates Directive (ND) to reduce nitrate water pollution from agricultural sources, which is responsible for harmful algal blooms that can decimate aquatic ecosystems, harm their dependent economies, and threaten surrounding populations.

After 30 years, nitrate contamination is still a major problem, yet the EU and its member states are now recognizing the cost of inaction and are proceeding more decisively.

The EU Council Directive 91/676/EEC 5, passed in 1991, is a key law at the foundation of the ND. It concerns the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources and supports the EU’s biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies’ goal of at least a 50% reduction in nutrient losses to the environment by 2030, while maintaining fertile soil. It also is important to other EU Green Deal objectives.

The ND mandates that EU member states must develop and apply agricultural action program measures throughout their territories or inside specific nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs). The programs promote fertilizer and manure handling best practices in 4 key areas:

  • Applying no more inorganic nitrogen fertilizer than needed
  • Limiting manure application
  • Observing seasonal limits on slurry, manure, and sludge on sandy and shallow soils
  • Maintaining records of cropping, livestock headcounts, and fertilizer management

European countries have varied in their response to the Nitrates Directive.

Progress on the Nitrates Directive

In Denmark, there has been a high degree of success with a national nitrate management plan that advises farmers on fertilizer efficiency and establishes yearly nitrogen budgets. Some countries are posting progress despite general inconsistency of compliance across the EU, for instance Denmark and Germany posted the most progress in remedying nitrate river pollution. A high proportion of river-monitoring programs have also reported progress in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Hungary, and Poland.

The EU has also become more aggressive in filing complaints against member states with poor ND compliance. In 2016, it filed against Germany over high nitrate concentrations in groundwater. The EU asked the court to fine Greece over nitrate pollution in 2019, and in late 2021, it brought Spain to court over nitrate pollution from decades of neglect and pollution from pig farms that led to major fish kills in coastal lagoons.

Nitrates Directive Path Forward

A recent report suggests part of the problem is that the governance framework does not do enough to distribute information that would persuade farmers to reconsider long-held attitudes that work against water quality, and that ND information dissemination is more effective on a local level. Reports to the EU Commission should involve multidisciplinary evaluation of governance dynamics alongside hydrochemical information.

The European Environment Agency noted, “Nitrate pollution can be tackled at source.” While agricultural runoff often isn’t considered point-source pollution, as soon as it enters a common ditch or culvert in agricultural land, it arguably becomes a point source and can be tackled with decentralized treatment.

Fluence modular Aspiral™ wastewater treatment units use membrane aerated biofilm reactor (MABR) technology to provide energy efficiency and high total nitrogen removal rates, including nitrate removal. Aspiral™ plants, which come in standard shipping containers, produce an effluent that’s ready for agricultural irrigation and meets strict reuse standards, including California’s Title 22 and China’s Class 1A.

Additionally, wastewater treatment plants that incorporate anaerobic digestion can now benefit from sidestream shortcut nitrogen removal with Fluence’s Nitro. Nitro MABR units deliver all the well-publicized benefits of shortcut nitrogen removal without the difficulties of annamox.

For problems such as the recent one in Spain, many farms have realized added value through energy recovery with anaerobic digestion. Animal waste, food processing wastewater, and other wastewaters with high organic load can be transformed into biogas and biomethane that can be sold in a fully established and growing EU market.

Fluence is a global water company active in EU member states and around the world. Contact Fluence — our experts are waiting to discuss how you can comply with the Nitrates Directive and even discover resource recovery opportunities hidden in your wastewater stream.

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