Excessive nutrients in rivers, lakes and aquifers are still threatening environmental health in Europe. Stringent regulations have led to progress in water quality, however hotspots with high nitrate concentrations still exist in Europe and understanding the impact of management on the nitrate concentrations and trends in these critical areas is still challenging. In this paper, we use the Exploration and Graphics for RivEr Trends (EGRET) statistical tool to eliminate the impact of flow variation, both short- and long-term, on nitrate concentration. We apply this tool to the south of France where water quality and quantity monitoring data is readily available. We compare the Mann–Kendall non-parametric approach to estimate trend and a methodology commonly used by Member States of the European Union when they report their progress in implementing the Nitrates Directive (referred to MSD approach hereafter). We showed that using the latter approach for the period 2008–2015 and the Mann–Kendall test leads to similar results in percentage of stations exhibiting trends, however with a significant disagreement on the stations exhibiting these trends. We further showed that when using flow-weighted nitrate concentrations instead of the simple mean nitrate concentration, the MSD approach results in a significant underestimation of the stations with an increasing trend. We also demonstrated that most of nitrate concentration time series are characterized by a bell-shaped curve with an increase of concentration from 1990 to mid-2000 and then a significant decreasing trend due to the implementation of management measures from mid-2000 to 2017. Most of the significant decreasing nitrate concentration trends are localized in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones that correspond to areas where strict nutrient management is required, highlighting the efficiency of the policy in place.
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