Council Directive 91/676/EEC

The Nitrates Directive (1991) aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources polluting ground and surface waters and by promoting the use of good farming practices.

The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against agricultural pressures.

Identification of water polluted, or at risk of pollution, such as:
  • surface freshwaters, in particular those used or intended for the abstraction of drinking water, containing or that could contain (if no action is taken to reverse the trend) a concentration of more than 50 mg/l of nitrates
  • groundwater containing or that could contain (if no action is taken to reverse the trend) more than 50 mg/l of nitrates
  • freshwater bodies, estuaries, coastal waters and marine waters, found to be eutrophic or that could become eutrophic (if no action is taken to reverse the trend)
Designation as “Nitrate Vulnerable Zones”(NVZs) of:
  • Eutrophic river areas of land which drain into polluted waters or waters at risk of pollution and which contribute to nitrate pollution; or
  • Member States can also choose to apply measures (see below) to the whole territory (instead of designating NVZs).
  • The current status of NVZ and whole territory designations can be viewed using the map viewer on the website of the Joint Research Centre.
  • 3. Establishment of Codes of Good Agricultural Practice to be implemented by farmers on a voluntary basis. Codes should include:
  • measures limiting the periods when nitrogen fertilizers can be applied on land in order to target application to periods when crops require nitrogen and prevent nutrient losses to waters;
  • measures limiting the conditions for fertilizer application (on steeply sloping ground, frozen or snow covered ground, near water courses, etc.) to prevent nitrate losses from leaching and run-off;
  • requirement for a minimum storage capacity for livestock manure; and
    crop rotations, soil winter cover, and catch crops to prevent nitrate leaching and run-off during wet seasons.
Establishment of action programmes to be implemented by farmers within NVZs on a compulsory basis. These programmes must include:
  • measures already included in Codes of Good Agricultural Practice, which become mandatory in NVZs; and
  • other measures, such as limitation of fertilizer application (mineral and organic), taking into account crop needs, all nitrogen inputs and soil nitrogen supply, maximum amount of livestock manure to be applied (corresponding to 170 kg nitrogen /hectare/year).
National monitoring and reporting. Every four years Member States are required to report on:
  • Nitrates concentrations in groundwaters and surface waters;
  • Eutrophication of surface waters;
  • Assessment of the impact of action programme(s) on water quality and agricultural practices;
  • Revision of NVZs and action programme(s)
  • Estimation of future trends in water quality.
Reports and studies

The 4-yearly reports produced by the Member States are used as the basis for a 4-yearly report by the European Commission on the implementation of the Directive.
In order to assist Member States in implementing the Directive and to extend scientific knowledge on best farming practices for protection of water quality and minimisation of nitrogen losses from agriculture, DG Environment also commissions studies on different aspects of the Nitrates Directive.

Member State information

More information on the current implementation of the Nitrates Directive in different EU Member States can be found on websites of competent authorities.