A comparative analysis of the application of water quality exemptions in the European Union: The case of nitrogen

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Freshwater ecosystems and water uses may be jeopardized by the degradation of water quality. The Water Framework Directive of the European Union (EU) sets environmental objectives for water bodies but foresees the establishment of exemptions under some circumstances. The criteria used to justify these exemptions, however, are not fully developed, leaving their application open to some arbitrariness. Our study explores the relations between the magnitude of pressures affecting continental surface water bodies and the declared exemptions on the permitted concentration of nitrogen. It identifies different approaches to declare exemptions to nitrogen environmental objectives across six EU Member States and discusses the underlying criteria. A better understanding of the pressures-impact-measures/exemptions relation helps compare water policy decisions across different regions subject to the same legal obligations and set priorities for mitigation measures.
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