Germany has been referred to the Court of Justice of the EU for failing to take stronger measures to combat water pollution caused by nitrates by the European Commission.

Nitrates are essential for plants to grow and they are widely used as fertilisers. However, the Commission says that excess levels cause severe water pollution, with consequences for people's health, the economy and the environment.

The decision to refer Germany to the Court of Justice follows a reasoned opinion sent to the German authorities in July 2014.

According to the Commission, the latest figures submitted by Germany in 2012 and several recent reports from the German authorities show worsening nitrate pollution in groundwater and surface waters, including the Baltic Sea.

Despite these trends, the Commission says that Germany has not taken sufficient additional measures to effectively address this pollution and revise its relevant legislation to comply with the EU rules on nitrates (Council Directive 91/676/EEC).

Since the Commission considers that the water pollution by nitrates is also not sufficiently addressed in the framework of the ongoing revision of the national action programme, it has decided to refer Germany to the Court of Justice of the EU.

The Nitrates Directive (Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991) aims to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources, polluting ground and surface waters, and by promoting the use of good farming practices.

It requires Member States to monitor their waters and identify those affected by pollution as well as set up appropriate action programmes aiming at preventing and reducing such pollution.

This Directive forms an integral part of the Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) and is one of the key instruments in the protection of waters against agricultural pressures.

Excess levels of nitrates can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by promoting the growth of algae which chokes other life, according to the Commission.

This process, known as eutrophication, entails a serious deterioration of water quality and loss of biodiversity.

Furthermore, it says that the presence of nitrates in drinking waters above 50 mg/l can have considerable health impacts on populations, especially on pregnant women and babies.

Purifying excess nitrates from drinking water is also a very costly process, which the Commission says is mainly supported by households and public authorities.