We all need water. It is essential for life. Agriculture is also essential for life. Without a safe, secure and affordable supply of food, society cannot and will not function. And without a reliable source of water, agriculture cannot be sustainable.
But it is also one of the biggest water-source polluting sectors. The upsurge in land cultivation over the last 60 years, coupled with the extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides and intensive mass animal farming, has led to significant increases in yield and productivity but also to massive environmental pollution.
We see: water and agriculture are strongly linked, and both sectors operate with direct benefits to and impacts on each other. Consequently, the availability of water, which can be used for drinking without treatment, is affected.
One of the core problems of agricultural practices is nitrates. Nitrates are a component of fertilisers, and can end up in drinking water resources if not fully absorbed by plants. Excess nitrates in water can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome. It is an example of a product that is beneficial when used correctly, and which can be harmful to the environment and human health if used excessively. To meet the standards set out in the EU Drinking Water Directive, water operators have to look for alternative sources and/or treat water to dilute or remove excess nitrates. The costs of doing this are reflected in our water bills.
This is not a new problem. Cooperation agreements between water resource managers and farmers, and to some extent central water protection programmes at a regional level over the last 30 years, go some way to preventing nitrates from entering drinking water resources. So far, billions of euros have been spent on compensatory payments to farmers in return for using fewer nitrates in their work and therefore reducing the risk of these ending up in drinking water resources.
Now is the time to act
In the European Commission’s report on the implementation of the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC), Germany is ranked in second last place for nitrates pollution. In April 2016 the European Commission took Germany to the European Court of Justice for failing to take stronger measures to combat water pollution caused by nitrates. The latest figures submitted by Germany (2012) and several recent reports from the German authorities show worsening nitrate pollution in groundwater and surface waters, including the Baltic Sea.
Despite these trends, Germany has not taken adequate additional measures to effectively address nitrates pollution and revise its legislation to comply with the EU rules. In addition, the European Commission considers that water pollution by nitrates is also not sufficiently addressed in the framework of the ongoing revision of the national action programme.
A conservative agricultural policy led by the German farmers’ association has systematically dismissed, suppressed and denied the environmental impact, and proposed solutions are still lacking. This is no longer socially acceptable.
Due to the long response time of the agricultural system and the nitrates-contaminated groundwater bodies, action must be taken immediately.
The most important objective is to cut the nitrate excesses to under 50 mg N/L (limit value set in the Drinking Water Directive). This requires, in particular, making more efficient use of nitrates in farming which can be achieved through clearly defined, binding and controllable measures. The consequences of any infringements must be legally enforced. We also need to know about the amount of nitrates released in the environment by agriculture (‘emissions’) in order to align these with the status of drinking water resources in terms of acceptable ‘immissions’ set within the legal requirements of the European Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC).
In late 2016 the German water associations BDEW, DVGW and VKU began an initiative on water and agriculture, asking their members (water companies) for measurement data on nitrates in groundwater resources used for drinking water abstraction. This new database resembles a type of an ‘incoming goods inspection’ for the waterworks.
The goal of the initiative is the systematic documentation of the nitrates contamination in the drinking water resources. Targeted remedial measures will be derived from this in local and national discussions with farmers, their associations and political decision makers.
The database currently comprises 1,100 upstream measurement points and 3,700 drinking water wells, which jointly supply more than 50,000 nitrate analyses.
Already the first assessments reveal that there is an urgent need for action: at 25% of the upstream measurement points, the limit of 50 milligrams of nitrates per litre (limit value of the Drinking Water Directive) is exceeded. Peak values of up to 400 milligrams of nitrates per litre were even recorded.
We also see that the natural degradation processes (denitrification) of the soil acts as a buffer and prevents high nitrate concentrations at wells – but this capacity will not last forever. There is evidence that in some regions this degradation capacity is already declining. Immense nitrate loads are threatening to arrive at the drinking water wells.
This shows that there is an urgent need for action to reduce the amount of nitrates in the environment.
The new German fertiliser legislation provides for a so-called substance flow balance, i.e. farmers have to account for the nitrogen amounts received at and leaving the farm. BDEW, DVGW and VKU expressly welcome this step in principle. Only by comprehensive nutrient accounting and its compulsory monitoring will it be possible to limit the nitrogen input into the waters. It is therefore necessary that this new nutrient accounting is introduced immediately and for all farms independent of their size.
For drinking water services it is crucial that water-compatible land cultivation becomes reality in Germany. The new groundwater database on nitrates constitutes the future reference scale that will reveal the extent to which the new fertiliser law is positively affecting the nitrate contents in drinking water sources.
Pesticides are another footprint of agriculture on water resources. Raw water for the public drinking water supply should largely be free of pesticide residues. The intensive agriculture practised under today’s agro-economic conditions by default makes use of chemical pest management to protect crops. Protecting drinking water resources can require measures that have to go beyond the requirements of comprehensive water pollution control, depending on the local conditions.
Since 2006, inland sales of pesticides have increased and now amount to more than 46,000 tonnes of active substances (for the year 2014). 50% of groundwater resources are already contaminated by pesticide residues – and are rising. As soon as the use of pesticides in water protection areas causes thresholds to be exceeded, the treatment technology in drinking water plants must correspondingly rise.
Apart from the quantities applied, the level of efficiency is also important for evaluating of the use of pesticides from an environmental protection point of view. Thus, modern highly effective pesticides can – despite a lower dosage – exhibit the same hazard potential as ‘older’ pesticides requiring a higher dosage. Too little is known about the synergies of pesticide residue cocktails. The previous cumulative value has not displayed any effect and must be replaced by new evaluation approaches, taken for instance from effect-related analytics.
Furthermore, EU water policy is not consistently implemented across Member States, for example through the National Action Plans under the Framework Directive on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. It remains ineffective because of vague objectives, inconsistent enforcement and strong resistance from the sector. We need the consistent implementation of infringement measures from the EU based on clearly measurable target figures (tonnages, concentrations).
The German water associations DVGW, BDEW, VKU and the association of pesticides producers (IVA) established the ‘Raw Water Database of Plant Protection Products’ in 2010. This cooperation came about to encourage the two sectors to resolve problems through discussion.
Initially, the sectors’ positions were far apart. Representatives from the pesticides producers’ industry knew little about the problems encountered by the water companies with regard to drinking water resources. The water companies had only vague notions of the complex procedure involved in the authorisation of plant protection products. The demands placed on the other party were virtually impossible to meet.
An agreement of common understanding entitled ‘Securing the future together’ on collaboration between the water industry and the pesticides producers was signed.
The collaboration was placed under the following guiding principle: “We tackle problems as if we were one company that produces both top-quality plant protection products and drinking water.”
The common positions for the collaboration were defined as follows:
- 1 Raw water for public drinking water supply should remain largely uncontaminated. The pesticides producers and the water industry undertake to jointly reconcile the extent of adverse effects due to plant protection products and their metabolites with the precautionary principle and health-related indication values.
- The high-performance, intensive agriculture, mainly practiced under today’s agronomic conditions, requires the use of environmentally compatible plant protection products and the responsible use of these substances in the environment. This way, it is also possible to satisfy nutritional needs and to protect resources such as land and energy.
- Depending on the natural site conditions, the protection of drinking water resources may necessitate action that goes beyond the requirements of area-wide water protection.
- The aim of developing new plant protection products is to manufacture active substances that can be degraded biochemically even more effectively, that are less persistent and therefore more environmentally compatible.
Since the project got underway, approximately 1,800 water companies have voluntarily provided 71,000 analysis data from 9,600 raw water abstraction points (drinking water wells) for the Raw Water Database.
A total of 253 active substances in pesticides and 26 metabolites were recorded. Of these, 35 active substances and 12 metabolites were found to be over the limit of determination. In 3,971 of the 4,119 raw water abstraction points investigated in the period from 2010 to 2011, the values of all of the parameters investigated were below the limit value of the Drinking Water Directive.
For the first time, it was possible to detect hotspots throughout Germany, enabling the problems to be then resolved locally. The water industry associations and IVA collaborate on-site with the water companies concerned in order to clarify the findings and to develop action for reducing inputs. The added value for all those involved is represented by:
- Systematic compilation, enabling further area-wide assessments
- Identification of problematic active substances of pesticides and hotspots
- Joint tackling of the problem in water catchment areas requiring action
- Unified stance taken by pesticide producers and water companies vis-à-vis third parties
From EU to local, and back again
It is time to introduce a modern, environmentally compatible agricultural system based on an enforceable framework and transparent data. The last revision of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) got off to a good start when the then Environment Commissioner, Janez Potocnik, announced a fundamental realignment of priorities: ‘greening’ was to become the hallmark of agricultural policy between 2014 and 2020.
EurEau supported the greening of agricultural practices and emphasised that water resource protection is one of the most important components in attaining sustainable agricultural practices. As such, we stressed – even back as far as 2013 – that ‘greening’ should cover also specific ‘blueing measures’ when setting requirements for:
- Plant nutrition and fertilisation
- Land utilisation and cultivation
- Plant protection (pest management)
- Water management
- Organisation and management
Not much is left from the initial enthusiasm for a more environmentally sound agriculture. On top of that, many Member States – among them Germany – are not fully implementing the Nitrates Directive, even within the scope of periodic revisions.
Thus, the sustainable protection of drinking water resources is still not taken seriously, even in the face of appeals from water utilities and environmental associations.
Basic aspects are still lacking. There is common agreement among water experts that for the protection of water resources it is necessary to:
- Determine the fertiliser requirement specifically for the respective site.
- Introduce broader peripheral strips of land along bodies of water and controllable distance regulations.
- Establish reduced upper limits for organic nitrogen fertilisation without exceptions and without derogation rules for fermentation residues.
- Adapt the blocking periods to plant requirements and vegetation periods.
- Introduce the gross farm gate balance for nutrient comparisons and their assessment, without deduction of any environmentally relevant nitrates and phosphorus losses and to subsequently disclose this as environmental data.
- Create storage capacities for fertilisers that are sufficient to meet the requirements of demand-based fertilisation.
- Sanction as a regulatory offence when the upper limits of organic nitrogen fertilisation and the permissible nitrogen are exceeded.
- Entail a monetary fine for regulatory offences.
- Impose further requirements on fertilisation if quality objective limits for groundwater and surface water are exceeded.
It is a water supplier’s duty to provide customers with drinking water of excellent quality and in sufficient quantity at all times.
Bearing this task in mind it is high time for integrated thinking on water and agriculture, since these two vital sectors are closely interlinked.
In its work, the Commission should consider the whole set of policies related to water and to agriculture, namely:
- The Common Agricultural Policy
- The Nitrates Directive
- The Water Framework Directive
- The Pesticides Regulation
- The Drinking Water Directive
These policies need more consistency, coherence and a proper implementation at Member State level to address and resolve the impact of agriculture on drinking water resources.
One overarching objective when interlinking these policies should be the efficient protection of water resources.
We need in this context a proper and robust evaluation of these policies to create the water-agriculture-nexus.
Now is the time to act.