The Irish Times view on: The EPA bathing report

Ireland in position to get massive post-Covid boost with proper water supplies in place

Merrion Strand in Dublin is the first Irish beach to shut permanently after failing EPA standards for the fifth successive year. Photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

A ban on bathing at Merrion strand in Dublin Bay was a long time coming; the culmination of five years of failure to meet minimum EU water quality standards. It has the infamous reputation of being the first beach in Ireland to have a permanent ban on swimming.

The EPA’s 2019 bathing water report outlines the causes, particularly two polluted streams whose contents are a result of poor sewerage infrastructure and run-off from roads. Local authorities and Irish Water are trying to find solutions.

Merrion strand figures prominently in a focus on what is causing ongoing pollution problems in Dublin Bay, including a separate bigger issue of discharges from the often-overloaded Ringsend wastewater treatment works. All told, too much raw or insufficiently treated sewage is being allowed into a much-used amenity and an internationally designated biosphere.

An overall improvement of bathing water quality at locations across Ireland should be acknowledged – 95 per cent of bathing waters (140 of 147) met or exceeded the minimum required standard, up from 94 per cent in 2018.

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There are, however, obvious pressure points. Two more beaches are set to meet the same fate as Merrion Strand: Portrane (the Brook) and Ballyloughane in Galway, if they fail to achieve a marked improvement in the coming year.

Irish Water is investing €1.2 billion at 28 locations where raw sewage is being pumped into rivers and seas including the Ringsend plant. But it is encountering delays in Arklow, Athlone, Roscommon and Enniscorthy, which risks substantial EU fines for failing to meet a 30-year-old commitment to end such discharges.

Partially-treated sewage was discharged from the Ringsend plant in a number incidents last year after storm water was released from holding tanks after periods of high rainfall. This occurred where the amount of water entering the sewer network was more than the capacity of the works and its holding tanks - €400 million is being spent on upgrading the facility.

Ireland is in a position to get a massive post-Covid-19 boost from being a genuinely green island, in offering a tourism product demonstrably embracing sustainability, where every sector in the economy is on an accelerated course of decarbonisation. Poor water quality, uncertainty about supplies in the most-populated eastern region and ongoing pollution of lakes, rivers, beaches and bays risks undermining all that.