‘Half our rivers and lakes are not in a healthy state’

The Government’s newly-announced River Basin Management Plan “lacks ambition” to fix the country’s waterways, environmental groups have warned.

According to the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) – comprised of national and local environmental groups – the plan, announced yesterday by Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy, “falls far short” of what is needed to protect our rivers, lakes and bays and to bring them up to a healthy standard.

The Government initiative aims to protect and improve water quality in 726 of Ireland’s 4,829 water bodies over the next four years.

Among the plan’s multiple commitments is a new Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme to provide advice, support and knowledge to farmers on driving towards “better farming practice” and water quality management.

However, despite the efforts of a team of officials and scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing, and the Local Authority Community and Water Office (LAWCO), Sinead O’Brien, coordinator of SWAN, claims the initiative lacks robust political will.

“Ireland claims to be a ‘green’ tourist destination; but [the plan] threatens its capability to become a truly environmentally-friendly food producer through such programmes as ‘Origin Green’.

The legal requirement under the EU Water Framework Directive – in place since 2000 – is to introduce new measures to bring the nation’s rivers, lakes and bays up to a good ecological state by 2021 (with some exemptions until 2027).

However, SWAN argues that this obligation has been “under-resourced” to the extent that half (52%) of Ireland’s rivers and lakes are failing to achieve the ‘good status’ required by the directive.

“This latest plan is sadly consistent with Ireland’s lack of ambition to date, proposing to fix only a small fraction (12%) of these.

Our water environment is the final recipient of many of the by-products of human activities – some are well-treated; but, many are not and pose a threat to human and environmental health.

“Discharge of raw and inadequately-treated sewage; spreading of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides on farmland; unsuitable coniferous forestry; drainage of peatland and wetlands; and faulty septic tanks, have all been identified as posing a threat to our water environment,” said O’Brien.

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“This plan lacks ambition and is an exercise in doing the best you can to stem pollution; whilst imposing no significant obligations for change on any of the sectors responsible.”

Grant-aid to farmers

She stressed that more state investment is “urgently needed” to end the discharge of raw and poorly treated sewage into our rivers and bays.

Grant aid to farmers must shift so as to support farming that prevents water pollution, protects the rural landscape and contributes to sustainable flood management – rather than encouraging an intensification programme not yet proven to be sustainable.

“Given its low targets for water quality improvements – which are clearly not in line with legislation – the River Basin Management Plan not only exposes the state to the risk of daily fines from the EU; but, it also means that communities miss out on the enormous benefits of a clean and healthy water environment,” she concluded.