At a glance
- The European Nitrates Directive places Germany under the obligation to prevent exceedances of the quality standard of 50 milligrams nitrate per litre.
- Since 2008, the quality standard has been exceeded every year at almost one in six measuring points.
- On June 21, 2018, the European Court of Justice found Germany guilty of violating the EU Nitrates Directive.
- Agriculture is the most important source of high nitrate concentrations in groundwater.
In agriculture crops are given the necessary nitrogen via fertiliser. However, the fertiliser is often not applied correctly for the specific site and use. If the amount of fertiliser is too high the plants do not absorb it completely. Excessive nitrogen is leached out and ends up as nitrate in the groundwater and other water bodies. This leads to eutrophication in rivers and lakes (cf. ‘Ecological status of rivers’ and ‘Ecological status of lakes’ indicators), and to nitrogen enrichment and exceedance of the nitrogen threshold in groundwater.
Nitrate can be converted to nitrosamines in the human body. This can result in disruption to the oxygen transport in infants (methemoglobinemia). The National Drinking Water Ordinance therefore stipulates a quality standard for nitrate of 50 milligrams per litre (TrinkwV 2001).
The value is very rarely exceeded in drinking water. It is complex and expensive to remove nitrate from pipe water in water treatment plants.
Assessing the development
The aim of the European Nitrates Directive (EU Directive 91/676/EWG) is to prevent pollution of groundwater by agricultural nitrate inputs. Governments are obliged to develop action plans to prevent nitrate concentrations above 50 mg/l. On 21 June 2018, the European Court of Justice found Germany guilty of violating the EU Nitrates Directive (case C-543/16). The reason therefore was that the directive had not been implemented adequately and the measures taken so far were not sufficient to achieve a significant reduction in nitrate pollution. Since 2008 the proportion of monitoring sites which exceed the quality standard lies between 16 and 19 %. The proportion of monitoring sites with a nitrate concentration above 25 mg/l has also stagnated since 2008 at 33–38 %. Since 2016, compliance with the nitrate quality standard has also been a target of the German Sustainable Development Strategy (BReg 2016).
The central legal instrument for implementing the Nitrates Directive is the German Fertiliser Application Ordinance. The Fertilisation Ordinance defines "good professional practice in fertilisation" and specifies how the risks associated with fertilisation are to be minimised. It is an essential component of the national action programme for implementing the EU Nitrate Directive. In 2017, the federal government adopted a new fertilisation ordinance with stricter rules. However, this was not sufficient for the EU Commission and therefore demanded improvements. In February 2020, the federal government then presented a new draft that had been agreed with the EU and which was approved by the Bundesrat on 27 March 2020 and has been legally effective since 1 May 2020.
Germany has to send data on the condition of the groundwater to the European Environment Agency (EEA) on a regular basis. The Federal States therefore selected representative monitoring sites to add to the EEA groundwater network. These are reported to the EEA through the German Environment Agency. The indicator compares the monitoring sites where the quality standard is exceeded with the total number of monitoring sites.
More detailed information: 'Grundwasserbeschaffenheit' (in German only).