Nitrogen seepage: Action programme fails to protect hundreds of rivers, lakes

Almost half of Irish surface waters are not in good ecological condition, says State watchdog

The EPA argues urgent action is needed now from the agricultural industry to reverse the pollution of waters because all the indicators are going in the wrong direction. File photograph

The EPA argues urgent action is needed now from the agricultural industry to reverse the pollution of waters because all the indicators are going in the wrong direction. File photograph


An action programme to limit nitrogen seepage from Irish farms has failed to protect hundreds of Irish rivers, lakes and water bodies from widespread agricultural pollution that can pose a risk to human health, the State’s main environmental watchdog has said.

In its assessment of water quality in Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said almost half of Irish surface waters are not in a good ecological condition and that agricultural run-offs are the main contributory factor to that deterioration, with lack of compliance to the programme posing an issue.

The EPA is appearing before the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture on Wednesday evening to discuss the European Union’s review of the Nitrates Directive and Ireland’s action programme to reduce nitrogen pollution from farming.

It argues urgent action is needed now from the agricultural industry to reverse the pollution of waters because all the indicators are going in the wrong direction.

In the agency’s opening statement, its director of evidence and assessment, Dr Eimear Cotter, says the biggest cause of widespread pollution in Irish water courses is excess nutrients from animals and fertilisers that have resulted in elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in our waters.

“Nutrient levels impact the ability of these waters to sustain healthy ecosystems and cause nuisance algal blooms. In terms of drinking water, high nitrogen levels, above the drinking water standard, can pose a risk to human health,” the statement says.

“In particular, nitrogen pollution is causing pressure in parts of the south, southeast and east of the country. A combination of freely draining soils combined with relatively intensive farming means the risk of nitrate leaching is high.

“Rivers such as the Bandon, Lee, Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow and Slaney have high nitrogen levels with significant implications for the marine environments they flow into.”

Close correlation

Nitrogen pollution is closely correlated with the intensiveness of farming: the higher the rate of application of nitrogen, the higher the nitrate concentrations in waters. Since 2013, nitrogen emissions have increased as both cattle numbers and fertiliser use have increased.

Dairy farming is the primary agricultural activity in most areas where nitrogen pollution is high. Ireland’s dairy industry relies heavily on nitrogen. The State has won a derogation from the EU Nitrates Directive that allows Irish farmers to use up to 250kg of Nitrogen per hectare, rather than the standard limit of 170kg where conditions allow.

However, the derogation is contingent on Ireland demonstrating a robust Nitrates Action Programme.

The EPA says that the current Nitrates Action Programmes has not worked and has failed to meet its objective. Moreover, its statement points to problems with farmers complying with the action programme.

“It is clear from the consultation to date that there are issues with achieving compliance with the Good Agricultural Practice Regulations,” it says.

“Securing compliance with all existing and new regulations needs to be given priority,” it adds.

Nitrogen is not the only problem pollutant from Irish farms. The statement describes pollution from phosphorus runoff as causing a pressure around the country on land where the soils are poorly draining. “Overall, the message is that protecting water quality is an issue for all farmers, not just those that have the largest or more intensive farms.”

The EPA has argued the next Nitrogen Action Programme will need to be far more robust with a strengthened enforcement and inspection regime.

“A one size fits all approach will not be adequate to achieve the outcomes that we need and therefore measures must be targeted to achieve water quality objectives. They need to be targeted and specific to the soils, activities and risks on the farm.”

During proceedings, the Committee was told that of 4,900 water bodies in Ireland - including rivers, lakes and estuaries - 1,000, or 20 per cent, were affected by agriculture and 200 by waste water contamination. Two thirds are considered to be in satisfactory condition, while one third are of concern.

Dr Cotter told the Committee nitrogen has been detected entering rivers, particularly in the south and southeast of the country, “moving through those freely draining soils, into our rivers and down into the marine environments”.

“We will find it extremely challenging to meet our objectives under the Water Framework Directive for 2027,” she said. “At the moment we can see the trends going in the wrong direction.”

Nutrient pollution in water bodies were at their highest in the 1990s, improving year-on-year until about 2011 to 2013 when it began to reverse again.

Many of the committee members represent agricultural communities. Cork South West TD Michael Collins said “the finger is being continuously pointed at the farmer when there’s raw sewage pumping into the tide from outdated waste water plants”.

Dr Cotter said there were 34 towns and villages around the country affected by such raw sewage. “We have highlighted this concern again and again,” she said.

‘Situation is urgent’

In a separate statement, David Flynn, principal adviser for water at the Department of Housing (which has responsibility for the Nitrates Directive) echoes the EPA’s concerns about the trends going the wrong way.

“People need clean water to drink, for sanitation and for swimming. Our food industry trades on Ireland’s image as a clean and green source of sustainable food production.

“Ireland’s tourism industry relies on our image as a green island with well-stocked, healthy fisheries; with unpolluted estuaries without green algae; and with clean beaches next to good quality bathing waters.

“Our biodiversity needs unpolluted water. All of this requires well-protected water catchments,” he states.

Mr Flynn says that the EU’s Water Framework Directives places binding obligations on Ireland to have a good water status.

“At present, we are a long way from this objective and water quality trends in many water bodies are going in the wrong direction. The situation is urgent and requires collective action across a number of policy areas to halt and reverse this deterioration in water quality,” he states.

He says the new Nitrates Action Programme, currently being finalised, will include new requirements for slurry storage and waste water storage; a dairy industry nitrogen-reduction initiative; new controls on chemical fertilisers; a register of chemical fertilisers; and green cover on tillage ground.

The statement suggests farmers will need to be provided with a “reasonable economic return for operating sustainably within the limits of the land.”