Across the EU and beyond, Nitrates constitute the main source of diffuse pollution of surface and ground water. Concentrations of nitrogen compounds have increased in recent decades, resulting in a significant pollution challenge. The main source of this pollution is the excessive or unsuitable use of fertilisers and residues in livestock farms. Many public administrations, including the EU, have already introduced new rules for the management of mixed farming. These new rules require the identification of waters affected by nitrate pollution and the definition of the appropriate criteria to establish the vulnerability of specific areas. In addition, they call for the development of action programmes in order to control, prevent or minimise the effects of nitrates on water.
The objective of the NITRATES project was to improve the knowledge of the impact of agricultural practices and livestock farming on nitrate contamination of continental waters and to define and promote best practices to reduce it. By doing this the aim of the project was to contribute to the implementation of the EU Nitrates Directive 91/676/EEC. LIFE NITRATES studied, in an impermeable pilot area subjected to irrigation, the effects of agricultural practices (action 1) and livestock farming activities (action 2) and the use of organic and inorganic fertilisers.
For both studies the project chose impermeable basins so that all the water and therefore all the nitrogen leached out of the basins could be collected and measured in gauging stations. In action 2 the project looked at the effects of livestock farming activity and the nitrate inputs and outputs derived specifically from cattle manure management. In the pilot areas, the project assessed the contamination of both surface and ground waters. By means of the analysis of inputs and outputs in the irrigated pilot area, the project developed new simulation models for quantifying the contamination of groundwater by nitrates from farming sources. It also extracted conclusions to enable an assessment of the action plans and measures that are currently implemented to avoid nitrate contamination. The project also carried out field demonstrations and training for farmers in order to increase awareness of the appropriate corrective measures.
The NITRATES project successfully studied in two pilot areas the impact of agricultural practices and livestock farming on nitrate contamination of continental waters. It performed significant experiments on the N mineralisation capacity of the different soils and crops cultivated, and relevant results were obtained. These results were used to produce a manual of good farming practices to reduce nitrate contamination, one of the most valuable outputs of the project.
The project also carried out a third action (action 3) to evaluate the action plans of the Navarra region in the alluvial of the River Ebro and its main tributaries. The project characterised the alluvial of the River Ebro on the basis of its soil types, crops cultivated, irrigation and fertilisation practices, climatic characteristics and N content. With the data obtained, LIFE NITRATES developed, calibrated and validated the simulation model, which has been the other main output of the project. The model can predict the behaviour of Nitrogen compounds in surface-waters and groundwater, and it will be used for the evaluation of the action plans for the nitrate vulnerable zones in Navarra.
The NITRATES project significantly contributed to improving the knowledge of the impact of agricultural practices and livestock farming on nitrate contamination of continental waters, and defined good agricultural practices to reduce nitrate contamination. The good agricultural practices defined by the project will contribute to a better implementation of the EU Nitrates Directive 91/676/EEC. Every four years, the Regional Government of Navarra must review the action plans for the nitrate vulnerable zones. In the next review, GAN will propose to update the action plans by incorporating the knowledge generated by the NITRATES project.From an environmental point of view, the project helped reduce nitrate contamination in continental waters, directly contributing to fulfilling the objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EU). It also helped improve soil quality and mitigate climate change by reducing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon footprint of the agricultural sector.
The project also successfully developed communication activities to disseminate information on the environmental problems caused by the nitrate contamination, the project and its results. It carried out training sessions developed with the farmers to inform them about the project results and the good farming practices.
The NITRATES project pioneered the creation and use of a complex simulation model to predict the nitrate concentration in an extensive area of almost 100 km2. It demonstrated that a significant part of the fertilisers usually used by farmers do not contribute to increasing the crop production. Not using fertilisers would not have a negative impact on the crop production.
By implementing the agricultural good practices defined by the project, the agricultural sector will be able to save money in fertilisation and irrigation, increase the cost-efficiency of their crops and boost the competitiveness in the agricultural sector.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).