The Irish Times view on water quality: We cannot afford another damning report

Five hundred of our rivers were reported as ‘pristine’ in the 1980s – just 20 can claim this status now

Dublin City Liffey Swim was threatened in 2019 by poor quality of water in river Liffey. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dublin City Liffey Swim was threatened in 2019 by poor quality of water in river Liffey. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Our dismal national performance in promoting a healthy and resilient environment is illustrated yet again in the Environmental Protection Agency report “Water Quality in Ireland 2013-2018”. This study is replete with evidence that the overall condition of our fresh water, far from improving, is deteriorating dramatically. Five hundred of our rivers were reported as “pristine” in the 1980s. Now just 20 can claim this status. The EPA says this “all-time low” is “of very significant concern”. Some earlier modest advances in water quality have gone into reverse. The number of “worst of the worst” rivers has risen by half.

It is understandable that a notorious mid-stream section of the Avoca river remains on the “worst” list due to toxins persisting from mining in the 1970s. However, it is unforgiveable that its lower reaches are fouled a second time, by raw sewage from Arklow. Irish Water says a treatment plant is planned there. Now would be good.

The news from our coastal and groundwater is somewhat better but, overall, Ireland is once again in breach of an EU environmental directive. It is particularly alarming that this deterioration in water quality has taken place after a number of initiatives, especially the very expensive establishment of Irish Water, which were supposed to improve aquatic quality.

The EPA’s Catchments Unit has made admirable efforts to promote a new national understanding that we all live in watersheds, and must learn to see lakes and rivers as key barometers of national environmental health. But despite the rollout of integrated catchment and river basin management plans, and some excellent work by community officers in the Local Authorities Water Programme (LAWPRO), we still find ourselves performing far below minimum standards. Moreover, the scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis, more evident by the day, demands that we adhere to much higher standards from now on, to avoid increasingly extreme consequences.

We know what and who causes water pollution: human and domestic waste, industry, peat extraction, poorly managed forestry and excess nutrients lost in agricultural run-off. There is also underlying concern that some multinationals in the tech sector may be getting an easy ride on water quality.

It is useless for ministers to preach vaguely about “reducing impacts”. Greatly increased investment in public education is essential through LAWPRO and other public agencies, as well as through innovative environmental NGOs and businesses. But we must also think in terms of enforcement. We cannot afford another report like this in five years. It is in the national interest to move decisively against all those interest groups and individuals who persist in polluting a prime public good: clean water.

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