Calls on Government to scale up water pollution controls targeted at intensive dairy farms

Escalating pollution ‘has not happened by accident’ - Sustainable Water Network

The extent of rising water pollution in Ireland necessitates stricter regulation of agriculture through a licensing system for intensive dairy and beef production, said the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN). A similar licensing system already exists in the pig and poultry sectors.

The latest EPA assessment indicated a “complete lack of progress that’s been made restoring our polluted waters”, said SWAN coordinator Sinéad O’Brien.

The network of 25 environmental organisations called on Government “to come up with an effective plan to address Ireland’s escalating water pollution crisis”.

The report highlights almost half of surface waters are unhealthy and getting worse, with estuaries declining by 16 per cent and coastal waters declining 10 per cent — including worsening nitrate pollution in the south and southeast.


“Nearly half of our rivers (43 per cent), mostly in the south and southeast of the country, are below healthy levels for nitrogen while nearly a third of rivers (30 per cent) and a third of lakes (33 per cent) are failing for phosphorus concentrations,” Ms O’Brien said on Friday.

“Concentrations of nitrogen in particular have increased substantially across our rivers, and estuaries, with these declines clearly coinciding with areas of increased intensive dairy farming,” she said.

The Government should address the problem by ensuring the 2022-2027 river Basin Management Plan (RBMP) is made more robust, she said. It is required under the EU Water Framework Directive to lay out how Ireland will restore its inland and coastal waters to a healthy state by 2027.

“However, the plan in its draft form is much too weak, and completely lacking in the ambition and targeted actions needed to tackle pollution,” she said.

Ms O’Brien said local success stories were “massively over-shadowed by escalating pollution and physical damage from agricultural intensification, poorly managed forestry, lack of regulation of river and land drainage and continued pollution from out-of-date sewerage systems”.

“This has not happened by accident,” she said. “The State’s policy for, and promotion of, aggressive agricultural expansion and intensification, particularly in the dairy sector, runs contrary to the ever-growing body of evidence showing the drastic impacts this is having on our rivers, lakes and coasts, especially in vulnerable catchments.”

IFA President Tim Cullinan said farmers wanted water quality to improve and were working hard to achieve better quality, but he accepted the EPA report “shows ongoing work has to continue to bring about the improvements that are needed”.

“Farmers are working directly with their advisers to improve water quality and it’s delivering tangible results. The Agricultural Sustainability and Support Advisory Programme (ASSAP) that assists farmers in their own catchments must be expanded so we can support more farmers to improve water quality,” he said.

He said the improvements in water quality in these areas showed the right measure in the right place at the right time was a far more effective mitigation strategy, “as it recognises the inherent variability found between and within catchments, rather than the one size fits all regulatory approach”.

The IFA would be studying the report to see what further measures could be considered, he said.

SWAN called on the Government to introduce site-specific risk assessments for intensive farms and afforestation in vulnerable catchments; measures to fix discharges in more than 200 waterbodies heavily polluted by sewage; a ban on wetland drainage; reform of the Arterial Drainage Act; and a national wetland restoration plan.

An Taisce’s natural environment officer Dr Elaine McGoff said: “Water protection measures have failed time and time again, and the Government has long been aware that many of their policies for agricultural expansion, forestry planting and clearfelling, and land drainage are at odds with their stated ambition to improve water quality. This is compounded by their failure to adequately address the shambles that is our water treatment infrastructure.”

“We cannot keep doing the same thing and acting surprised when we get the same result. The Government now has an opportunity to take a different approach in drafting their new RBMP which could, and should chart a way towards healthier waterways,” Dr McGoff said.

The report is “a wake-up call for all organisations involved in managing and protecting our precious water resources and all citizens that can take action to protect or improve water quality”, said Dr Matt Crowe, chairman of the National Water Forum (NWF).

The EU Water Framework Directives requires all waterbodies (rivers, lakes, streams, estuaries, coastal areas) to have at least “good” status, with no further deterioration in any waterbody. Ireland has 4,832 waterbodies requiring protection to keep them at “good” or “excellent” status, while others require improvement measures to bring them back to at least “good” status.

“It is now essential that the Government identify targeted actions for each and every waterbody in Ireland, in an outcomes-based approach that will protect current status or improve it where necessary,” Dr Crowe said.

Agriculture was the largest significant risk to waterbodies, he noted. Local authority catchment scientists are working alongside ASSAP advisers to help farmers address local issues on water quality and to identify and implement the right action in the right place, he said. “This new approach though is only happening in a relatively small number of areas and the Forum would like to see this approach expanded to all water bodies at risk from agriculture to accelerate the identification and implementation of the right action in the right place.”

A revised nitrates action programme (NAP) is coming into operation in Ireland with tighter regulations on slurry spreading and the application of chemical fertilisers on land. Ireland’s nitrates derogation from the EU allows more nitrogen per hectare than routinely permitted. Some 5,000 farms benefit from this.

Ireland applies to the European Commission for this derogation every four years. It claims it is needed because of the long growing season and the number of fields that can absorb nitrogen. Once granted, farmers apply annually to the Department of Agriculture for a derogation licence for their farms.

Many farmers are required to install additional slurry and soiled water storage under the revised NAP. Failure to comply can result in their licence being withdrawn, while the Commission can order a reduction of the overall number of farms with a derogation — which would have a significant impact on farm incomes.

Under the new NAP, farm inspections by local authorities are being increased from 5 per cent of farms to 10 per cent annually. The EPA indicated in its report it will be upgrading the inspection process to ensure whole of farm inspections are carried out to evaluate their impact on water quality.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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