What can I do to protect the water quality in my area?

The most recent 2013 to 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed an overall decline in water quality in Ireland.

The main area for concern in this period was rivers, where water quality has declined by 5.5% over this period.

By 2027, under the River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018 to 2021, all water bodies in Ireland must achieve good status. For this reason, it is critical that everyone plays their part in protecting water quality.

And so, the Agricultural Sustainability Support Advisory Programme (ASSAP) was developed to provide industry solutions to the issue. ASSAP has been actively visiting farms since April 2019 and is currently working with farmers in 68 particular areas of action (PAAs) and have completed 1,181 farm assessments.

Speaking at the Fertiliser Association of Ireland (FAI) Spring 2020 Scientific Meeting, Noel Meehan, ASSAP manager, outlined what areas are having the greatest impact on water quality.

Diffuse losses are the losses of phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N) and sediment coming from the landscape.

Image source: Fertiliser Association of Ireland

He also discussed the five most common issues affecting water quality and offered some advise to farmers on how they can mitigate these issues.

1. P and sediment loss through overland flow

In the case of P and sediment overflow, Noel said that farmers need to be aware of critical source areas (CSAs). These are areas of the farm that can have a direct impact on water bodies due to the high connectivity of the area with water.

A low cost and easy option to implement, Noel explained is, to allow buffer zones to grow out – in the same way the farmer has done in the image below.

This area will help capture any P or sediment loss before it meets the water course.

Image source: Fertiliser Association of Ireland

2. Nutrient management planning

This, he said, is about appropriate nutrient advice.

In the shoulder periods of the year, farmers need to be particularly careful about when they put the nutrients out; where they put the nutrients; how much they put on; what product they use and so on, Noel highlighted.

Soil samples will show you where the low fertility is and the results should be used when developing a fertiliser plan for the farm; so as nutrients are targeted to where they are needed most.

3. Drinking points and stream fencing

Noel noted that there is an ongoing issue in this area, as it is something farmers are less inclined to do.

However, farmers must avoid allowing livestock access to water courses, if at all possible.

4. Buffer zones

On the topic of buffer zones, he said a survey was completed on farmers and they found that many farmers had a lack of awareness on buffer zones and closed periods. They were unsure about the distance they had to be from the water course at certain times of the year and when the closed period began and ended.

Nitrates regulations dictate that buffer zones for surface waters double in width from 5m to 10m in the first two weeks after the prohibited spreading period ends, according to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The same rule also applies for the two weeks before the prohibited spreading period begins in the autumn, it is noted.

5. Organic manure: application timing; location; and method

Again, Noel explained that this is all about nutrient use efficiency; avoiding application at high risk times, in high risk places (CSAs); and ensuring application is at the correct rate.