Plan to manage inland and coastal waters ‘completely lacking’ ambition, protesters say

Campaigners say fact that ‘raw and poorly treated sewage’ still being released into rivers, lakes and seas ‘completely unacceptable’

A draft Government plan for managing Ireland’s inland and coastal waters “is completely lacking the strong ambition and targeted actions needed to tackle the pressures” degrading Ireland’s waters and to restore them to good health, a network of 25 environmental groups has said.

At a protest outside Dáil Éireann on Thursday, the Sustainable Water Network (Swan) said they “are deeply alarmed at the prospect of another weak water plan being published that will condemn our rivers, lakes and coasts to another five years of continued deterioration and pollution”.

The plan being finalised by the Government is the third river basin management plan (RBMP) required under the EU water framework directive.

Swan coordinator Sinéad O’Brien said: “Half Ireland’s rivers, lakes and estuaries are unhealthy and water pollution is escalating, driven by inadequately treated sewage, unregulated land drainage and river alterations, and by unsustainable land use, especially intensive agriculture in vulnerable and nutrient-saturated catchments. The future for our rivers, lakes and coast is bleak if we continue down this path.”

She added: “Every five years we get a golden opportunity with the RBMP to introduce robust controls to stop the reckless destruction of our water environment, which is so vital to the wellbeing of all of us.”

Swan called for “a real step change in water protection rather than one that tinkers at the edges and shies away from tackling the most serious threats for fear of stepping on any toes”. Under EU law all Irish waters need to be restored by 2027, “but this plan lacks the specific, targeted and time bound measures that would provide a clear path to achieving this”, it said.

No measures included

Swan has set out seven key recommendations for fixing the plan being drawn up by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Some two-thirds of submissions made during a public consultation period supported these, it said.

“A clear example of where the plan fails is with sewage, which is responsible for the pollution of more than 200 water bodies, yet the proposed plan doesn’t include measures to fix these by the 2027 deadline,” Ms O’Brien said.

“The fact that raw and poorly treated sewage is still being released into our rivers, lakes and seas is completely unacceptable and even more unacceptable is the fact that this plan won’t fix that. We’re calling for the Irish Water Investment Plan to include action to halt sewage pollution in these waters, as a priority.”

Dr Elaine McGoff , natural environment officer with An Taisce, said agriculture was placing by far the biggest pressure on waters, yet there was no risk assessment done on intensive farming or derogations for farms.

“We need these assessments to get a clear view of the potential water pollution resulting from this type of land use, and to identify the appropriate measures that should be put in place to stop or prevent it. How can any plan for our waters say it is going to prevent deterioration of water quality if it isn’t even assessing the risk posed by this type of agriculture?”

The most important recommendations were to reform the Arterial Drainage Act, introduce a prohibition on wetland drainage and to develop a national wetland restoration plan, said Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust. “This would not only restore our rivers and lakes, while improving water quality, it would also deliver immense benefits for climate, nature and flood resilience. It really is a no-brainer but there is no mention of this in the plan.”

Bernie Connolly of Cork Environmental Forum said many people would bathe, surf or kayak in Ireland’s wonderful coastal waters this summer, yet the plan had no targeted measures to tackle “the non-land based pressures on coastal waters such as hydraulic dredging, offshore renewable energy infrastructure, shipping and seaweed harvesting”.

“How can the plan hope to succeed when it essentially ignores this whole area of our waters? Our recommendation is to include coastal and transitional waters in the plan with these targeted measures detailed,” she said.

Streamscapes project director Mark Boyden said that for the plan to work the public and local river groups/trusts needed to be involved from the start in the development of action plans for their local waters. “And they need to be facilitated and resourced to do this. We also need full transparency and access to up to date water quality information.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times