It’s a sadly rare pleasure to learn that any aspect of our environmental management is getting better, so the latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the improved quality of Ireland’s bathing water is very welcome news.
It will, of course, be especially appreciated by bathers who enjoyed exceptionally sunny days at beaches and lake shores this weekend. The report covers 2021, and conditions can change very rapidly, so the EPA advises bathers to check their local conditions.
But the overall picture is certainly very good, building on already high standards achieved in 2020. Of 148 beaches and lakeshores in the main survey, the bathing waters of 115 got an “excellent” rating, up four on the previous year, and 144 of them, or 97 per cent, met or exceeded the minimum required standard.
Local authorities manage and monitor bathing waters in their areas, and deserve credit for making a good record better. If they all paid the same attention to our biodiversity, in our roadside hedgerows for example, our environment would be in much better shape.
The agency stresses that bathing waters still face problems, from agricultural run-off, fouling by dogs, and urban waste water in particular. It reports a good example of positive engagement with landowners near a former black spot on Lough Ennell, which is significantly reducing pollution from the surrounding farms. This might be a model for resolving other environmental issues on the land.
The report notes that urban wastewater problems surge after heavy rainfall. That should remind us that environmental issues are all interlinked, and that climate change will exacerbate this problem. The EPA mapbook demonstrates these connections vividly, and makes a graphically compelling case for the integrated environmental policy that we so urgently need to develop.
So while we can certainly enjoy the good news about our bathing waters on our beaches this summer, there are no grounds for complacency. The quality of our river water, for example, has declined by 5.5 per cent in recent years, according to another EPA report. The number of river sites with high biological status has dropped to 20, from 575 recorded in 1990.
The long-delayed Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity is at last up and running, and can play a key role in galvanising a political class and a public service that still often display chronic inertia, at best, on these vital issues.
The assembly could usefully push for a joined-up approach between the EPA and a National Parks and Wildlife Service – with true autonomy and radically reformed structures – to give both the biodiversity and climate crises the attention they require, before it is too late.