The storms of recent weeks, coupled with a rainfall level some 20 per cent higher than normal, has made life particularly difficult - even dangerous - in parts of rural Ireland. And, if the weather does not improve, a health hazard may be added to these tribulations by way of polluted water supplies. For years, the Departments of the Environment and of Agriculture have failed to respond with sufficient urgency to reports that the quality of drinking water produced through many group water supply scheme was inadequate and unhealthy. Huge investments were undertaking to modernise and upgrade public water supplies, but the small and fragmented group supply systems have been relatively ignored, along with the causes of their distress.
The extent of the problems facing public and group water systems was quantified last year by the Environmental Protection Agency. It reported that while 92 per cent of public water supplies reached acceptable EU quality standards, the figure for rural group schemes fell to 58 per cent. There are more than 5,000 rural schemes in this State, which would suggest that more than 2,000 of them produce water of an inadequate quality. The EPA warned the operators of such schemes to be "constantly vigilant on public health grounds" and concluded that contamination of such supplies was often caused by run-offs from septic tanks or from agricultural slurry pits. Such schemes were especially vulnerable to pollution, it said, because the practice of chlorination or effective disinfection "may be largely or wholly unknown".
In that context, a report by this newspaper's Agricultural Correspondent that slurry stocks on farms are at an all-time high and that some farmers are spreading the effluent in wet weather, is a serious development. Not only can ground water, wells, water courses and aquifers be polluted by such activity, but public health is put at risk. Behind the disgraceful behaviour of those farmers lies an equally unacceptable reality that tens of thousands of farms still lack modern slurry pit facilities. Because rainwater is allowed to enter such pits unhindered, their holding capacity is limited in wet weather. The result is a Catch 22 situation where the farmer either spreads the slurry under unsatisfactory conditions or the pit is allowed to overflow into adjoining watercourses. In both circumstances, pollution follows.
A beginning was made in tackling agricultural pollution ten years ago when significant grants were provided through EU structural funds. More recently, 40,000 farmers installed water management systems under the REPS scheme, which separates clean water from slurry. Thus progress has been made. But not enough. An estimated 100,000 farms are affected and tens of thousands of those have poor or inadequate slurry-holding facilities. Official sources accept the current pollution threat will become a reality in the absence of good drying weather, which would allow extensive and safe slurry-spreading by farmers. It is an unacceptable situation. Responsibility for ensuring that the health and welfare of rural communities is protected lies equally with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment.