EU regulations for farmers haven’t prevented water quality deterioration, and further action is required, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In its recent submission on the fourth review of Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme (NAP), the EPA said water quality problems are not just a concern for the more intensive farms, but are relevant to all farmers. A one-size-fits-all approach would not be adequate - measures need to be targeted specific to the soils and risks on each farm.
The agency acknowledged evidence of exemplary and low impact practice on individual farms - and in some types of farming - but said the growth of the sector as a whole in recent years is happening at the expense of the environment, witnessed by trends in water quality, biodiversity, greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions.
The problem of waters with excess nitrogen is of greatest concern in the South and South-East of the country, which is also the area where the highest levels of intensive farming take place. Free-draining soils in these areas make them particularly susceptible to nitrogen losses from agriculture. Only just over half of Ireland’s surface water bodies have satisfactory water quality, according to the EPA. Nearly half (47%) of rivers have unsatisfactory nitrate concentrations, with an increasing nitrate trend from 2013 to 2019 in 44% of rivers.
Over one-fifth of estuarine and coastal waters have unsatisfactory dissolved inorganic nitrogen. Over one-fifth of groundwater monitoring sites have high nitrate, with three exceeding the drinking water standard. Agriculture is the most widespread and significant pressure impacting on the water environment, said the EPA. The agency welcomed NAP commitments to integrate climate and biodiversity measures, to ensure nitrate derogations on individual holdings do not compromise compliance with the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives.
The EPA said the agriculture and food sector needs to demonstrate and validate its performance around producing food with a low environmental footprint, by capturing and recording farm data to help build the evidence. "Measures to stabilise and reduce nitrogen losses, and reverse the deteriorating trends, are required as a matter of urgency,” said the agency in its NAP review submission.
The EPA said the main sources of phosphorus are agriculture and urban waste water, and over one-third of river monitoring sites have unsatisfactory phosphate concentrations, with one-quarter showing increasing phosphate. It only takes a very small amount (less than 200g/ha) of phosphorus loss to cause a water quality problem.
The EPA also drew attention to the rules of current land eligibility for EU payments, which incentivise farmers to remove scrub and previously unworked land. The EPA said these are typically natural habitat areas that, if retained, could intercept water pollutants, with multiple benefits for water quality, biodiversity and climate.