Large nutrient losses to groundwater and surface waters are a major drawback of the highly productive agricultural sector in The Netherlands. The resulting high nutrient concentrations in water resources threaten their ecological, industrial, and recreational functions. To mitigate eutrophication problems, legislation on nutrient application in agriculture was enforced in 1986 in The Netherlands. The objective of this study was to evaluate this manure policy by assessing the water quality status and trends in agriculture-dominated headwaters. We used datasets from 5 agricultural test catchments and from 167 existing monitoring locations in agricultural headwaters. Trend analysis for these locations showed a fast reduction of nutrient concentrations after the enforcement of the manure legislation (median slopes of -0.55 mg/l per decade for total nitrogen (N-tot) and -0.020 mg/l per decade for total phosphorus (P-tot)). Still, up to 76 % of the selected locations currently do not comply with either the environmental quality standards (EQSs) for nitrogen (N-tot) or phosphorus (P-tot). This indicates that further improvement of agricultural water quality is needed. We observed that weather-related variations in nutrient concentrations strongly influence the compliance testing results, both for individual locations and for the aggregated results at the national scale. Another important finding is that testing compliance for nutrients based on summer average concentrations may underestimate the agricultural impact on ecosystem health. The focus on summer concentrations does not account for the environmental impact of high winter loads from agricultural headwaters towards downstream water bodies.
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