EPA’s N and P figures sum up sustainability challenge

One of the bits of bad news in the 2010-2015 Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Quality in Ireland report is a decline in the number of rivers largely unimpacted by human activities.

We have only 21 of these so-called “pristine” rivers compared to over 500 in the late 1980s.

How realistic is it to expect to find more rivers largely unimpacted by human activities, over six years in a country recovering from recession, aiming to deliver 100,000 jobs, and exceeding that ambition, by almost 90,000 additional people at work, bringing unemployment to its lowest level since 2008?

Obviously, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a high standard.

It has to, with the European Union ultimately calling the tune with its Water Framework Directive (WFD).

Meanwhile, the Food Wise 2025 Strategy part of our economic recovery calls for increasing the value of production from our farms by 65%, to almost €10 billion; increasing the value of agri-food exports by 85%, to €19bn; and creating 23,000 additional jobs in the agri-food sector.

The EPA says nutrient losses from agriculture and domestic wastewater are the primary reasons why the water quality objectives of the WFD will not be met.

That’s a big worry for farmers in the context of the Government’s ongoing negotiations with the European Commission on Ireland’s Nitrates Action Plan (NAP), which is designed to prevent pollution from agricultural sources, in line with Ireland’s EU Water Framework Directive obligations to protect and improve water quality.

If these negotiations do not go well, the European Commission can bring our agricultural expansion to a halt.

That is what the Commission did in the Netherlands this year, readjusting the country’s Nitrates Action Plan and thus forcing Dutch dairy farmers to reduce the number of dairy cows to the level they had in July, 2015.

Such harsh treatment is less likely for Ireland, where the EPA’s report on Irish water concludes there has been little overall change in water quality in the six years to the end of 2015. Nevertheless, this is interpreted as a failure to meet the planned national target of 13% improvement in water status, and a failure to prevent deterioration of water status at hundreds of water bodies, “cancelling out” improvements in a similar number of water bodies in other parts of the country.

The European Commission noted nitrate levels from agricultural sources decreasing in Ireland in the 2008-2011 period, but agriculture remaining a significant pressure, with some agricultural intensification planned.

These notes were in the Environmental Implementation Review published earlier this year, which said nitrates were, in contrast, a big problem needing attention in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and the UK.

The Commission said in its Environmental Implementation Review that Ireland needed to ensure “the registered improvement of water quality as regards nitrate pollution is not undermined by the planned agricultural expansion”.

Now comes the news from the EPA that upward trends in total nitrogen are being seen in several estuaries since 2010, including the Bandon, Blackwater, Boyne, Nore, Slaney and Tolka estuaries.

Phosphorus concentrations in rivers appear to be relatively stable nationally

In the Blackwater, nitrogen inputs declined from 1999 to 2011, but this decline has now reversed, with average nitrogen input during 2013–2015 32% greater than in 2010–2012. The phosphorus input during 2013–2015 is 29% greater than in 2010–2012.

The Bandon estuary nitrogen input decreased until 2010, but had jumped by 48% in 2013–2015, with phosphorus input rising 68%.

It’s a warning farmers must heed, while hoping the Nitrates Action Plan remains unchanged, leaving the industry to get on with tackling the very difficult challenge of sustainable agricultural expansion.

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