Who pollutes the water? Farmers plead not guilty and protest at the water board

Now that the European deadline for clean water is approaching, the battle is breaking out over who is polluting the water in North Holland. According to the water board, the agricultural sector is largely responsible, but the farmers plead innocent. Tomorrow they will protest at the water board and demand new research.

The West Frisian polder – Photo: Copyright foto/photo Siebe Swart

At first glance, nothing seems to be wrong in the North Holland polders and ditches. Plants grow along the shore, fish swim in the ditch and here and there a coot sits. Yet, according to the European Union, this water is extremely polluted. Not only is it cloudy, the ditches are full of nitrogen and phosphorus.

A major problem, because all European member states have agreed that European ditches and rivers must be clean by 2027. The water boards are making all kinds of attempts to improve water quality, but the Netherlands is far behind the rest.

But how does the water get so dirty? Last year, the water board informed NH that at least the half of pollutants are released into the water by farmers. Manure and pecticides wash from the yard into the ground and the ditch. When asked, the water board does not want to confirm this again.

“Nonsense,” says dairy farmer René Staal from Berkhout. According to the farmer, it is not at all certain that the farmers are responsible for the polluted water. “We are being blamed for the pollution, while it has not been proven that it is only our fault.”

And so tomorrow Staal will climb onto the tractor again. Together with 100 other farmers, he is protesting at the water board in Heerhugowaard where he will hand over a pamphlet to dike director Bosma and director Jos Beemsterboer (BBB) ​​with the clear message: “Do more research before we are blamed.”

Nitrogen and phosphorus

What exactly is it? North Holland water contains too much nitrogen and phosphorus. This has roughly two causes: on the one hand, farmers spray their land with manure and poison, after which it flows into the ditch and on the other hand, there is naturally nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil. The latter is because the soil in many places consists of peat, which is broken down slowly. This process releases nitrogen and phosphorus.

According to Staal, that is exactly the problem. He first wants more research into the share of the agricultural sector before farmers have to make new concessions. However, the water board indicates that they have already conducted that research in the form of a source analysis. The ultimate goal for farmers is to reverse the manure policy: to protect the water, farmers are now allowed to spread 210 kilos of manure instead of 250 kilos.

Text continues below the photo.

Photo: Harm Lukas Scheltens

The chance that he will be right is small. The Water Board has been working to improve water quality for years. There is a lot of haste behind this, because if the Netherlands does not meet European standards, the EU can impose fines or prevent new companies that threaten water quality from obtaining a permit.

Moreover, this week a report from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency shows that if the Netherlands really wants to achieve its water targets, this would require a huge change. Governments should take more initiative to expand the habitats of plant and animal species, use agricultural land less intensively and reduce the number of farm animals.

To collaborate?

To achieve the goals, the water board needs the help of the farmers. Especially considering that half of all nitrogen and phosphorus in the water comes from the more than 3,000 agricultural companies in the region. To convince farmers of their polluting influence on nature, the Water Board set up the Agricultural Portal, an organization where farmers are encouraged to use sustainable soil.

1,200 companies are now participating. Jan Willem Huizinga of the Noorderkwartier previously said that this collaboration is not always easy: “The nitrogen crisis has created a lot of distrust towards the government. What matters is finding the right tone.”

That tone has not been found for Rene Staal. Tomorrow he will be at the Water Board together with about 100 farmers. “Let them do another investigation, that will take a year anyway. Then we will consider new steps.”

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