Water is far too precious to destroy - Drinking water report from EPA

EARLIER this month the Environmental Protection Agency warned that we have, over three decades, grossly abused our water resources.

The agency reported that there has been a relentless, almost universal degradation of that irreplaceable necessity. In that relatively short period, the water systems that could be described as “pristine” fell from 500 to a shameful 21. The EPA warned that this destruction driven by man continues apace — and will do so unless there is the belated ethical awakening needed to end this destruction.

The EPA published another report yesterday and found that the quality of drinking water in public supplies remains high “though further improvements are necessary to improve the security of supplies and avoid water restrictions, including boil water notices”. Water charges anyone? Or should those responsible for supplying us with ample, clean water buy Lotto tickets?

The two reports overlap and highlight an almost childlike irresponsibility in how we misuse water systems as dumps without any regard to the consequences. They also highlight Government hypocrisy and that it, and other administrations, put the interests of a powerful but ever more questionable farm lobby before the common good. That may be an unwelcome assessment in a country where agriculture plays such a central role but, unfortunately, the evidence is ample and undeniable. Agriculture, in all its forms, has by far the greatest negative impact on water quality. To pretend otherwise would be foolish and wrong.

Government policy to increase milk and beef production will, no matter how the circle is squared, exacerbate the degradation of water. That alone should provoke a review of the milk-and-beef expansion plans. That they, if successful, will make it impossible to meet our greenhouse gas emission obligations suggests more pressing questions and a dangerous disconnect from the reality of today’s world.

Unfortunately, but typically, programmes established to protect or revive water resources do not succeed. Some time ago the European Commission warned of substantial fines because of the damage caused by fertilisers, slurry-spreading, and urban wastewater. Unfortunately but typically again, the EPA has reported that the scheme set up to confront this situation has not realised its objectives.

Modern farming methods are the primary cause of water pollution but local authorities have questions to answer too. Yesterday’s report pointed out that over 700,000 consumers depend on sources where improvements to treatment infrastructure “are needed to meet public health standards”. Kerry, Cork and Donegal account for almost half of the “at risk” sources identified. Raw sewage is still discharged at 43 locations as if this was 1817 rather than 2017. This is unacceptable and ending this practice must be a priority.

We must do more to protect our water supplies even if that means curtailing destructive practices. The farm and food sector cannot be expected to resolve these issues alone but they should be in no doubt that fundamental change is urgently needed. A derogation from reality is not an option.

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