No let-up can be expected in the drive to prevent water pollution from agricultural sources, and to protect and improve water quality.
An expert review group has made recommendations such as exclusion of cattle from watercourses on heavier stocked farms.
Realistically, such measures are the least that farmers can expect.
These recommendations go to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which in turn must negotiate with the European Commission on the details of a new Nitrates Action Programme to be put in place by the end of 2017.
The Nitrates Action Programmes have been in place since 2006, requiring farmers, among other things, to observe closed periods in which fertiliser cannot be spread.
The expert review group (of officials from the two Departments and from the Environmental Protection Agency) says the Nitrates Action Programme is the basic measure for protection of waters from agricultural sources, and it has helped keep average nitrate concentrations across all water categories at a relatively stable level.
However, despite significant initial improvements in water quality since 2006, further improvements have not been observed within the past six years.
In addition, compliance levels among farm holdings have not improved.
Now, the expert review group’s recommendations for all farms include prevention of direct run-off from farm roadways to water, and livestock drinking points on the heavier stocked farms (grassland stocking rates above 170kg of N/ha) to be at least 20m from water.
Recommendations also include measures to attain optimum soil fertility consistent with efficient agricultural production and water quality protection.
The review group says its recommendations would bring about important incremental improvements, but the most potential for improvements in water quality are in adopting a collaborative approach focussed on changing behaviours at farm level.
The review group warns that any future declines in water quality will threaten the possibility of future derogations being granted under the Nitrates Directive for nearly 7,000 Irish farmers (predominantly dairy farmers), allowing them to farm at a more intensive stocking rate.
The risk of losing such derogations is already faced by farmers in the Netherlands because they didn’t measure up, exceeding their national phosphate limits for three years, and they have been forced to reduce their dairy herds 3% in the past year in an effort to comply.
The pressure they have come under demonstrated the European Commission’s resolve to enforce the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which is designed to achieve at least good status for all water bodies.
Any Irish farmers that resent the imposition of new controls to prevent nitrate or phosphate pollution should keep the plight of the Dutch in mind. And they can no longer point to the other side of the world and complain that environmental restrictions are much less in New Zealand, a country with similar farming practices, which competes with Ireland for a share of the world dairy products market.
Down there, dairy farmers now face environmental taxes that could cost an average of €11,000 per year for each farm, if the Green Party and Labour Party get into government.
Their recent general election was inconclusive, and talks are now getting under way to form a coalition government.
The Green Party and Labour Party are likely to be involved, and they want a carbon tax averaging €4,000 per farm, and a nitrogen pollution tax averaging €6,800 per farm.
And the Labour Party (which doubled its MPs in the election), proposes a water use tax which would add a further €27,000 to the annual bills of the 2,000 dairy farms (out of 12,000) that use irrigation.