Native trees can keep water clean

OUR most precious natural resource is clean, drinkable water.

Ireland, with its marine climate, is blessed with an abundance of rain and to worry about having enough water to drink would have seemed ludicrous even 10 years ago.

Yet the EPA’s report on Irish water makes disturbing reading (Irish Examiner, October 12).

It was shocking to read that “a quarter of groundwater supplies have nitrate levels higher than the national guideline levels, with 57% showing the presence of faecal coliforms”.

Though surface water from lakes and rivers shows a slight improvement since the previous EPA report, the quality of groundwater has deteriorated significantly.

We have all been conditioned to blame farmers and rural-dwellers for this contamination while ignoring major commercial activities, such as quarrying and commercial (evergreen) conifer forestry, which cause significant damage to our water supplies.

The construction boom of the past decade has demanded massive quantities of rock, gravel and sand. Instead of extracting a sensible amount and then restoring the site, quarrying companies have been allowed to create deep pits that break into underground aquifers and drain whole water networks for miles around.

Wells and springs dry up and their water leaks into the quarry pits. Companies often have to pump the now-contaminated water as waste. Native Irish deciduous trees are powerful natural water filters.

They also hold and enrich our soil and take up and process both human and animal waste as nutrients.

Having native trees like willow, ash, elder, oak and whitethorn on hills, along water courses and over aquifers protects the water from the run-off from farm and hill septic tanks, and even urban contamination.

Commercial plantations of Sitka spruce widely grown across the country offer none of these benefits.

When they are clear-felled — harvesting of whole areas of forest with heavy machinery — the soil is churned up and soil waste and the chemicals used in the forest are free to wash into our waterways every time it rains.

Our water woes have not happened overnight, but result from years of unsustainable commercial practice. With threats like e-coli and cryptosporidium we must take emergency measures to render our water safe by taking such measures as stepping up treatment.

But if we do not at the same time restore the natural protection that trees provide for water, then we will be doomed to drink ‘safe’ processed water instead of healthy fresh water from now on.

Kathy Sinnott, MEP

EU Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety

Ballinabearna

Ballinhassig

Co Cork

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