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Last week, the EPA published its Water Quality in Ireland Report 2013-18, which made national headlines, once again placing agriculture firmly in the spotlight.

It must be remembered that overall, water quality in Ireland compares favourably to the EU average, but meeting the objectives under the Water Framework Directive (WFD), whereby all waterbodies must achieve good status by 2027, will be challenging.

The future of the Nitrates Directive Derogation is at stake, which falls under the WFD. As such, the risks for dairy farmers and the wider industry couldn’t be any higher.

The EPA analysis is based on the assessment of 2,703 surface water bodies and from 514 groundwater bodies over the period 2013-2018. The report finds that 52.8% of surface water bodies assessed are in satisfactory ecological health being in either good or high ecological status. The remaining 47.2% of surface water bodies are in moderate, poor, or bad ecological status. This compares with 55.4% at satisfactory status for the last assessment period of 2010 – 2015, a decrease of 2.6%. Coastal waters have the highest proportion of water bodies in good or high ecological status (80%), followed by rivers (53%), lakes (50.5%) and estuaries (38%). Meanwhile, 92% of groundwater bodies were found to be at good status.

In terms of change since the last full assessment in 2010-2015, 68.4% (1,831) of the water bodies did not change in status, 18% (481) declined and 13.6% (364) improved. Of significance, there was a net decline of 128 river water bodies, or 5.5%.

Of particular note, the continuing decline in the proportion of high-status surface water bodies or pristine water bodies is a major concern.

The EPA state in their report that the main issue impacting on our waters is nutrient loss (nitrogen and phosphorus) which can cause excessive plant growth and increase the likelihood of algal blooms. Agriculture and waste water are the main sources of nutrient losses to water.

Nitrogen emissions to water are a particular concern in the south and southeast of the country, as free draining soils are more susceptible to nitrogen leaching. Nitrogen loss reduction measures need to be targeted in these areas, for example by improving nutrient use efficiencies and reducing the use of chemical fertilisers.

In other parts of the country, Phosphorus concentrations are more elevated. Phosphorus losses come primarily from waste water discharges, and from runoff losses from agriculture on poorly draining soils. Phosphorus loss reduction measures need to be targeted at breaking the pathways which connect phosphorus sources to rivers and streams.

From the work of the ASSAP programme, the evidence shows that sediment loss is a much greater factor affecting water quality than previously thought. Sources of sediment can include riverbanks, roads, and forestry, along with agricultural sources.

However, there are some green shoots within the EPA Report.

There is a net improvement of 16.7% (or 81 water bodies) in water quality in so called Priority Areas for Action. In 2018 & 2019, the ASSAP programme has been very active across the 190 Priority Areas for Action and the roll out of the programme will contribute to a positive improvement in water quality.

However, the salient truth is that more action will be needed to secure the derogation after 2021. 

Eamonn Farrell – Agri Food Policy Executive