Nutrients in freshwater in Europe

Indicator Specification
Indicator codes: CSI 020 , WAT 003
Created 07 Oct 2004 Published 11 May 2005 Last modified 07 Feb 2019
17 min read
This indicator shows concentrations of orthophosphate and nitrate in rivers, total phosphorus in lakes and nitrate in groundwater bodies. The indicator can be used to illustrate geographical variations in current nutrient concentrations and temporal trends.

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)


Justification for indicator selection

Large inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus to water bodies from urban areas, industry and agricultural areas can lead to eutrophication. This causes ecological changes that can result in a loss of plant and animal species (reduction in ecological status), and can have negative impacts on the use of water for human consumption and other purposes.

The environmental quality of surface waters with respect to eutrophication and nutrient concentrations, is an objective of several directives: the Water Framework Directive, the Nitrate Directive, the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, the Surface Water Directive and the Freshwater Fish Directive.

Scientific references

  • No rationale references available

Indicator definition

This indicator shows concentrations of orthophosphate and nitrate in rivers, total phosphorus in lakes and nitrate in groundwater bodies. The indicator can be used to illustrate geographical variations in current nutrient concentrations and temporal trends.


The concentration of nitrate is expressed as milligrams of nitrate per litre (mg NO3/l) for groundwater and milligrams of nitrate-nitrogen per litre (mg NO3-N/l) for rivers.

The concentration of orthophosphate and total phosphorus are expressed as milligrams of phosphorous per litre (mg P/l).

Policy context and targets

Context description

This indicator is not directly related to a specific policy target. The environmental quality of freshwater with respect to eutrophication and nutrient concentrations is, however, an objective of several directives. These include the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC), aimed at reducing nitrate pollution from agricultural land; the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC), aimed at reducing pollution from sewage treatment works and certain industries; the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive (96/61/EEC), aimed at controlling and preventing pollution of water from industry; and the Water Framework Directive, which requires the achievement of good ecological status or good ecological potential of rivers across the EU by 2015. The Water Framework Directive also requires the achievement of good groundwater status by 2015 and the reversal of any significant and sustained upward trend in the concentration of any pollutant. In addition, the Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC) sets the maximum allowable concentration for nitrate of 50 mg/l. It has been shown that drinking water in excess of the nitrate limit can result in adverse health effects, especially in infants less than two months of age. Groundwater is a very important source of drinking water in many countries and is often used untreated, particularly from private wells.

One key approach of the Sixth Environment Action Programme of the European Community 2001-2010 was to 'integrate environmental concerns into all relevant policy areas', which could result in a more intense application of agri-environmental measures to reduce nutrient pollution of the aquatic environment (e.g. in the Common Agricultural Policy).


This indicator is not directly related to a specific policy target. The environmental quality of surface waters with respect to eutrophication and nutrient concentrations is, however, an objective of several directives:

-         Drinking Water Directive (98/ 83/EC) — maximum allowable concentration for nitrate of 50 mg/l.

-         Surface Water for Drinking Directive (75/440/EEC) — guideline concentration for nitrate of 25 mg/l.

-         Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) — requires the identification of groundwater sites/bodies where annual average nitrate concentrations exceed or could exceed 50 mg NO3/l.

-         Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/71/EEC) — aims to decrease organic pollution.

Related policy documents

Key policy question

Are nutrient concentrations in Europe's freshwaters decreasing?

Specific policy question

Are nitrate concentrations in Europe's groundwater decreasing?

Specific policy question

Are nutrient concentrations in Europe's surface waters decreasing?


Methodology for indicator calculation

Source of data (data handling part): The data in Waterbase is collected through the Eurowaternet process and is therefore a sub-sample of national data assembled for the purpose of providing comparable indicators of pressures, state and impact of waters on a Europe-wide scale. The data sets are not intended for assessing compliance with any European Directive or any other legal instrument. Information on sub-national scales should be sought from other sources.

Data on groundwater bodies, rivers and lakes are collected annually through the WISE-SoE data collection process. WISE SoE was previously known as Eurowaternet (EWN) and Eionet-Water.

The data requested on ground water include the physical characteristics of the groundwater bodies, proxy pressures on the groundwater area, and chemical quality data on nutrients and organic matter, and hazardous substances in groundwater.

The data requested on rivers and lakes include the physical characteristics of the river/lake monitoring stations, proxy pressures on the upstream catchment areas, and chemical quality data on nutrients and organic matter, and hazardous substances in rivers and lakes. They also include the biological data (primarily calculated as national ecological quality ratios), as well as information on the national classification systems for each biological quality element and water body type.

These reporting obligations are Eionet priority data flows and are used for the EEA core set of indicators.

Station selection: No criteria are used for station selection (except for time series and trend analysis — see below). For groundwater, time series are based on data for groundwater bodies, while the WISE maps of the most recent data are based on data for groundwater monitoring stations. For EU countries, there are two sets of groundwater body delineations available, the Eionet and the WFD delineation. Sometimes these do not overlap completely. As a general rule, the WFD delineation is chosen, but there are some exceptions where the Eionet delineation is used: Croatia (a new EU Member State), Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Netherlands (all or many long time series are lost if using WFD delineation) and a composite Italian groundwater body not overlapping with the WFD groundwater bodies. For non-EU countries, only the Eionet delineation is available.

Determinants: The determinants selected for the indicator and extracted from Waterbase are:

  • for groundwater: nitrate,
  • for rivers: nitrate, total oxidised nitrogen and orthophosphate,
  • for lakes: total phosphorus.


Mean: Annual mean concentrations are used in the present concentration and time series presentations. In a few cases, where annual data seem to have been reported incorrectly as annual, and/or where the inclusion of seasonal data gives a higher number of complete time series, gaps in annual data series have been filled with data from seasonal time series. Countries are asked to substitute any sample results below the limit of detection (LOD) or limit of quantification (LOQ) with a value equivalent to half of the LOD or LOQ before calculating the station annual mean values. Average mean concentration values of zero or null are discarded from the calculations or replaced by the median value, as long as this value is not zero or null.

An automatic QA/QC procedure excludes data (stations*year) from further analysis. This is based on flagging in Waterbase, deriving from QA/QC tests. In addition a semi-manual QA procedure is applied to identify outliers that are not identified in the QA/QC tests. This comprises e.g. values deviating strongly from the whole time series, values not so different from values in other parts of the time series, but deviating strongly from the values closest in time, consecutive values deviating strongly from the rest of the time series or whole data series deviating strongly in level compared with other data series in the country. Such values are eventually flagged in Waterbase (if not confirmed valid), but not until the year after, due to timing issues. More details on the QA/QC procedure are found here:

  • groundwater QA/QC description
  • rivers QA/QC description
  • lakes QA/QC description

For rivers where nitrate and total oxidised nitrogen (TON) are monitored at the same station and at the same time, nitrate values are given precedence. For stations where only TON is reported, these data are used instead of nitrate. Also, in cases where more years of data are available for TON than nitrate for a single station, the TON data are used. All values are labelled as nitrate in the graphs, but it is indicated in the graph notes for which countries TON data are used.  

Inter/extrapolation and consistent time series 

For time series and trend analyses, only series that are complete after inter/extrapolation (i.e. no missing values in the station data series) are used. This is to ensure that the aggregated data series are consistent, i.e. including the same stations throughout the time series. In this way assessments are based on actual changes in concentration and not changes in the number of stations. For rivers and lakes, 'stations' in this context means individual monitoring stations. For groundwater it means groundwater bodies, i.e. the basis for inter/extrapolation and selection of complete data series is groundwater body data series. Each groundwater body may have several monitoring stations and in some cases the number of monitoring stations has changed over the years. This means that some of the complete data series for groundwater (after inter/extrapolation) are not truly consistent and hence must be regarded as more uncertain than the complete series for lakes and rivers. The purpose of choosing this approach is to increase the number of consistent groundwater time series.

Changes in methodology: station selection and inter/extrapolation. 

Until 2006, only complete time series (values for all years from 1992 to 2004) were included in the assessment. However, a large proportion of the stations was excluded by this criterion. To allow the use of a considerably larger part of the available data, in 2007 (i.e. when analysing data up until 2005) it was decided to include all time series with at least 7 years of data. This was a trade-off between the need for statistical rigidity and the need to include as much data as possible in the assessment. However, the shorter series included might represent different parts of the whole time interval and the overall picture may therefore not be reliable. In 2009, it was decided rather to inter/extrapolate all gaps of 1-2 year where values were missing for each station. At the beginning or end of the data series, one missing value was replaced by the first or last value of the original data series, respectively. In the middle of the data series, missing values were replaced by the values next to them for gaps of 2 years and by the average of the two neighbouring values for gaps of 1 year.

In 2010 this approach was modified, allowing for gaps of up to 3 years, both at the ends and in the middle of the data series. At the beginning or end of the data series up to 3 years of missing values are replaced by the first or last value of the original data series, respectively. In the middle of the data series, missing values are replaced by the values next to them, except for gaps of 1 year and for the middle year in gaps of 3 years, where missing values are replaced by the average of the two neighbouring values. Only time series with no missing years for the whole period from 1992 after such inter/extrapolation are included in the assessment. This procedure increases the number of stations that can be included in the time series/trend analysis. Still, the number of stations is markedly reduced compared to the analysis of the present situation, where all available data can be used.

Aggregation of time series 

The selected time series (see above) must be aggregated into a smaller number of groups and averaged before the aggregated series can be displayed in a time series plot. Data for all determinands are grouped into five geographic regions of Europe, containing the following countries:

Eastern: CZ, EE, HU, LT, LV, PL, SI, SK. 

Northern: FI, IS, NO, SE. 

Southern: CY, ES, GR, IT, PT.

South-Eastern: AL, BA, BG, HR, ME, MK, RO, RS, TR, XK.

Western: AT, BE, CH, DE, DK, FR, IE, LI, LU, NL, UK.

Country codes

Some of the listed countries are not included in the figures because there were no stations with complete time series after inter/extrapolation.

Data for river determinants are, in addition, grouped into six sea region catchments, which are defined not by countries but by river basin districts. The data thus represent rivers or river basins draining into that particular sea. The sea regions are defined as Arctic Ocean, Greater North Sea, Celtic Seas, Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Coast, Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. The sea region delineation is according to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) Article 4, with the Arctic Ocean added as a separate region. As the catchment area draining into what is defined as the North-East Atlantic region of the MSFD is very big, it was decided rather to use the sub-region level here, but merging the Celtic Seas and the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Coast.

Determinants are also aggregated for the whole of Europe. 

Trend analyses

Trends are analysed using the Mann-Kendall method (Jassby and Cloern 2013) in the free software R (R Core Team 2013). This is a non-parametric test suggested by Mann (1945) and has been extensively used for environmental time series (Hipel and McLeod, 2005). Mann-Kendall is a test for monotonic trend in a time series y(x), which in this analysis is nutrient concentration (y) as a function of year (x). The test is based on Kendall's rank correlation, which measures the strength of monotonic association between the vectors x and y. In the case of no ties in the x and y variables, Kendall's rank correlation coefficient, tau, may be expressed as tau=S/D where S = sum_{i<j} (sign(x[j]-x[i])*sign(y[j]-y[i])) and D = n(n-1)/2. S is called the score and D, the denominator, is the maximum possible value of S. The p-value of tau is computed by an algorithm given by Best and Gipps (1974). The tests reported here are two-sided (testing for both increasing and decreasing trends). Data series with p-value < 0.05 are reported as significantly increasing or decreasing ('strong trends'), while data series with p-value >= 0.05 and < 0.10 are reported as marginally significant ('weak trends'). The results are summarised by calculating the percentage of units (groundwater body/river station/lake station) within each category relative to all units within the specific aggregation (Europe or region). The test analyses only the direction and significance of the change, not the size of the change.

The size of the change is estimated by calculating the Sen slope (or the Theil or Theil-Sen slope) (Theil 1950; Sen 1968) using the R software. The Sen slope is a non-parametric method where the slope is determined as the median of all slopes (yj − yi)/(xj − xi) when joining all pairs of observations (xi,yi). Here the slope is calculated as the change per year for each unit (groundwater body/river station/lake station). This is summarised by calculating the average slope (regardless of the significance of the trend) for all units in Europe or a selected region. Multiplying this by the number of years of the time series gives an estimate of the absolute change over time. This can be related to the mean value of the aggregated time series to give a measure of relative change. The Sen slope was introduced for this indicator in 2013.

The Mann-Kendall method or the Sen slope will only reveal monotonic trends and will not identify changes in the direction of the time series over time. Hence a combination of approaches is used to describe the time series: a visual inspection of the time series, describing whether the general impression is a monotonic trend, no apparent trend, clear shifts in direction of the trend or high variability with no clear direction; an evaluation of significant versus non-significant and decreasing versus increasing monotonic trends using the Mann-Kendall results; an evaluation of the average size of the monotonic trends using the Sen slope results.

Present concentration distributions:

The latest year for which there are concentration data for the river, lake and groundwater stations is selected for each country separately. The number of stations with annual mean concentrations occurring in the selected concentration classes is then calculated and presented. The allocation of a station to a particular class is based only on the face value concentration and not on the likely statistical distribution around the mean values.

  • The class defining values for nitrate are based on typical background concentrations in the different water categories and the legislative standards (50 mg NO3/l) and guide values (25 mg NO3/l). 
  • The class defining values for orthophosphate (rivers) and total phosphorus (lakes) concentrations are based on typical background concentrations in the different water categories and on the range of concentrations found in Waterbase, and only give an indication of the relative concentrations of phosphorus in each country.


More information is given in the WISE maps.

Methodology for gap filling

Methodology for gap filling is described above (under inter/extrapolation and consistent time series).

Methodology references

Data specifications

EEA data references

Data sources in latest figures


Methodology uncertainty

Nitrate concentrations in groundwater originate mainly from anthropogenic influence caused by agricultural land-use. Concentrations in water are the effect of a multidimensional and time-related process, which varies from groundwater body to groundwater body and is, as yet, less quantified. To evaluate the nitrate concentration in groundwater and its development, closely-related parameters such as ammonium and dissolved oxygen have to be taken into account. 

Data sets uncertainty

The data sets for groundwater and rivers include almost all countries within the EEA, but the time coverage varies from country to country. The coverage of lakes is less good. Countries are asked to provide data on rivers and lakes, and on important groundwater bodies according to specified criteria. These rivers and lakes, and groundwater bodies are expected to be able to provide a general overview of river, lake and groundwater quality at the European level, based on truly comparable data. 

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Work description

This indicator will be improved as more countries implement Eurowaternet. There are gaps in river, lake and groundwater characteristic information from some countries. This does not enable the stratification of all stations by river and lake size, and thus limits to some extent the current dataset for size-stratification. Also many countries did not report all the requested summary statistics such as the median. A bigger gap in the information is in terms of catchment pressures. Some countries have used Corine land cover data to provide proxy indicators of pressures. It is expected that this aspect will improve significantly during the next year as new updated Corine data will be available, and as work is undertaken by the ETC/WTR and ETC/TE to fill in the gaps in the pressure indicators. More times series data would improve the dataset particular from Southern countries.

Resource needs

Improve dataset in terms of time series (esp. from southern countries)


In progress


2006/01/01 00:00:00 GMT+1

Work description

All countries should have completed their delineation of groundwater bodies according to WFD in March 2005. As a consequence it should be easier to get more information on groundwater bodies. Especially information on GIS data should be available. Existing data on groundwater bodies will have to be evaluated and updated as the delineation of GW-bodies is likely to be changed due to WFD requirements. Countries will also be designing and/or modifying their monitoring programmes for rivers, lakes and groundwater bodies over the coming years as a requirement of the WFD. This should increase the extent of information potentially available to the EEA through the EWN process.

Resource needs

No resource needs have been specified


Not started


2008/01/01 00:00:00 GMT+1

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Peter Kristensen


European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
CSI 020
WAT 003
Version id: 1

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year


DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)

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