Measures to stem nitrate leaching from farmland have been too weak and limited in scope to cut the pollution of ground and surface waters. That was the admission implicit in the announcement from the Environment Department (DEFRA) in late August that it is to review implementation of the 1991 EU nitrates Directive.1The consultation document on nitrate pollution proposes an expansion of nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs), where farmers must observe rules on the amount and timing of nitrogen applications to their land.
Currently the zones cover 55% of England, but DEFRA suggests this will now have to rise to “about 70%”.
The increase is needed because nitrate pollution has been getting worse in some areas of the country, DEFRA says, and because improved modelling has allowed more water bodies to be assessed.
While monitoring by the Agency “has identified reductions in nitrate concentrations in some areas,” DEFRA says, “we cannot be confident that these downward trends will be sustained, and are not simply a short-term fluctuation. Additionally, we can conclude that concentrations in many areas have either increased or remain high.”
The cost to the water industry of removing nitrate pollution is estimated to be £288 million in capital expenditure and £6 million per year in operating costs. These figures are also rising, the report warns, as nitrate levels in groundwater continue to increase.
DEFRA has long been under pressure from the European Commission over UK implementation of the Directive. It received a final warning of impending prosecution in 2003 (ENDS Report 340, p 10 ) but successfully put off the inevitable tightening of the rules until now.
The proposed additional designations would almost bring England back to the 80% level that the Environment Agency thought was the minimum advisable back in 2001. Objections by farmers subsequently led ministers to weaken the proposals.
The consultation document again raises the question of whether the whole of England should be declared an NVZ. This would have the advantage of simplifying enforcement and creating a level playing field for farmers across the country. However, ministers have shied away from this approach in the past, apparently accepting the argument that the additional costs to the sector would outweigh the advantages.
As well as expanding the extent of NVZs, the consultation proposes tighter restrictions on farming practices within them. The key proposals are:
- Farmers will only be allowed to apply 170 kilograms per hectare of nitrogen from animal manures per year, rather than the 250kg per year permitted on grassland.
- Closed periods when manure and fertiliser applications are not permitted will be extended and will apply to all soil types.
- The requirement for manure storage capacity will be increased to up to 26 weeks.
- High-trajectory and high-pressure slurry spreading methods will be prohibited to prevent pollution of watercourses.
- Farmers will also have to carry out written risk assessments of land used for manure, slurry or fertiliser applications. Additions to land at high risk of polluting waters will be prohibited.
- Over-winter cover crops will be required prior to planting spring-sown crops such as sugar beet and potatoes to limit leaching and runoff.
- Farmers will be obliged to keep records of all nitrogen additions to land to facilitate compliance checks.
DEFRA estimates that the measures will cost farmers £35.50-80.7 million, if applied to 70% of England, or £59.60-115.90 million if applied across the country. The main expense will be the need to increase manure storage capacity and the possible need to transport manure or slurry to other farms.
The consultation expects that the proposals will cut nitrate losses by 5-15%, phosphorus losses by 4.5% and increase ammonia emissions by up to 2%. The increase is due to losses from manures during storage.
DEFRA has rejected economic instruments – including nutrient taxes and tradable permits – as not cost-effective. Instead the three options feature further regulation through the imposition of water protection zones (WPZs), where particular farming practices might be prohibited to prevent pollution.
The reliance on WPZs is ironic as the powers to institute them were created in 1974 but have been largely ignored ever since. The only zone designated so far is the river Dee in North Wales in 1999 after a history of serious chemical pollution incidents that affected drinking water supply (ENDS Report 290, p 11 ).
WPZs are currently designated under section 93 of the Water Resources Act 1991. But if DEFRA decides they will be used to address agricultural pollution, the clause that prohibits their use for controlling nitrate will be deleted. But DEFRA makes it clear that if this happens WPZs would not be used primarily to address nitrate, hence maintaining the distinction between WPZs and NVZs.
DEFRA’s three options are WPZs alone, WPZs plus support from an enhanced environmental stewardship scheme (ES), and WPZs, the ES and further support from the England Catchment Sensitive Farming Delivery Initiative. All would be expected to achieve an average 48% reduction in phosphorus inputs to water and a similarly substantial cut in sediment from arable farming.
The impact of the two support schemes, DEFRA says, would be to improve farming practices and reduce the area of WPZs that would need to be designated.
The new version is based on the operations that farmers undertake, rather than around different media. It is the result of discussions with farmers and other stakeholders.
Responses to all three consultations are required by 13 November.