It is a judgment that could greatly advance the quality of groundwater: according to a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg, there is a fundamental right to clean groundwater that does not exceed the nitrate limit.
Water companies, communities and individuals can claim this right from the authorities and demand adjustments if the limit of 50 milligrams per liter is exceeded. A water supplier from Eisenstadt in Austria as well as a organic farmer and a community from the region had sued.
The dispute concerns the pollution of groundwater from agricultural sources. Nitrate, a compound of nitrogen and oxygen, is created in the soil when excess fertilizer from intensive farming on fields is converted by bacteria to the substance. The rain leaches the nitrate into nearby waters or it seeps directly into the groundwater.
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A little nitrate also reaches the groundwater naturally, according to experts up to ten milligrams per liter. However, researchers complain that too much is being fertilized in many places in Germany - often with artificial fertilizer or manure from animal husbandry. The farmers argue that, even if the fertilizer regulation is complied with, the limit would be exceeded in some places, as long as intensive agriculture is practiced in Germany. In addition, they fear crop losses and higher costs due to fertilizer reductions. So some companies would not be profitable. According to the last nitrate report of the Federal Government, the values exceed the 50 milligram mark at 18 percent of the almost 700 measuring points.
This is a major problem, because water utilities largely extract drinking water from groundwater. Nitrate can be dangerous for humans, the body converts it to nitrite, which inhibits, for example, the transport of oxygen in the blood. Drinking water can be safely consumed, it is a very strictly controlled food. However, nitrate must be removed from the water in some places using new technology. In addition, ever deeper wells are drilled. That could push up prices for drinking water, the utilities fear. Already, some are paying farmers to fertilize less (read more here).
The problem brought Germany into trouble with the EU. For Brussels had complained years ago that the federal government is doing too little to protect the groundwater and thus violates EU law. In June 2018, the ECJ urgently called for improvements to the German fertilizer industry. Otherwise penalties of up to 850,000 euros per day are imminent.
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Therefore, Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner (CDU) and Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze (SPD) recently submitted new proposals in Brussels to settle the dispute. For example, the draft provides for greater regulation of farmers in the future. For example, they should document the fertilizer quantities in their fields and comply with longer retention periods.
An answer from Brussels to the reworking proposals is still pending, it is expected in the coming weeks. But perhaps the current decision from Luxembourg with its Europe-wide effect has signal character. The judgment is in fact a referral procedure: the court in Austria had asked for an ongoing procedure in Luxembourg on how to interpret European law on the Nitrates Directive.
Although it is not yet clear what impact the ECJ decision will have and how the right to groundwater without nitrate surplus is to be specifically implemented by the authorities. But German water suppliers feel confirmed in their criticism of too loose fertilizer rules.
"Our position is strengthened"
The Association of Municipal Enterprises (VKU) supplies with its numerous water utilities 90 percent of the German drinking water. "Our position has now been strengthened," the VKU told SPIEGEL.
If in a municipality the limit is exceeded, a water supplier can now demand an adjustment directly from the competent authorities, until the limit values are again met, so the VKU. This also applies to existing action programs or additional measures.
However, the drinking water suppliers hope that the values will remain below the 50 milligram limit, at least in the long term, and that this need not be called for on a case-by-case basis. Until then, it should still be a long way.