TDs and Senators have questioned the methodology of a key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report which may lead to further restrictions on the amount of organic manure farmers can spread on land as fertiliser.
The EPA Water Quality Monitoring Report on Nitrogen and Phosphorus Concentrations in Irish Waters 2022 found levels of polluting nitrogen and phosphorus in Irish watercourses arising from farming and forestry unacceptably high.
It is expected the assessment of water quality will now result in farmers in certain areas facing more severe restrictions on stocking levels and the spread of organic manure under the EU Nitrates Directive.
However, members of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine on Wednesday questioned whether the increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus were being fairly attributed to farming practices.
TDs and Senators raised issues of waste water and storm water run off pollution from urban areas to watercourses. Senator Paul Daly, a farmer, said he had done much work to reduce pollution levels in a stream on his farm, but a local road bridge across the stream regularly poured overflow, including roadkill and oils and other material, into the river.
Members questioned if industry or domestic septic tanks were also subject to the same level of scrutiny as farming.
Committee chairman Jackie Cahill said the committee had concerns “around the methodology used by the EPA” in compiling the report.
Senator Tim Lombard said “derogation farmers” or those who were granted a derogation from some restrictions on stocking levels and the spreading of manure may be being blamed unfairly.
Shane Herlihy, a hydrogeologist and environmental consultant to the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), told the committee that the criteria adopted by the EPA seemed to be more onerous than that recommended by the EU Commission. He said it was “very clear” from research from the farm advisory body Teagasc, “that nitrate losses to water are caused by a multitude of factors and is not simply linked to herd size”.
IFA president Tim Callinan said farmers had “made significant investments on their farms to mitigate their pressure on local catchments”. He said the report, if implemented, could ruin farm families.
However, Dr Eimear Cotter, director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment, said “this assessment was based on specific criteria set by the commission under a 2022 Commission Implementing Decision”.
She said the most recent assessments show only 54 per cent of surface waters – rivers, lakes and estuaries – were in a satisfactory condition “which means that a large number are not in good ecological health”. She said “the picture for our estuaries is even more stark with only 36 per cent in satisfactory ecological condition”.
Dr Cotter said agricultural activity was one of the main sources of nutrient losses to water in Ireland and was a significant pressure on about 1,000 waterbodies. “As well as being too high, nitrogen levels in groundwaters, rivers and estuaries have increased over the last 10 years since their lowest point in 2012-2013,” she said.
Dr Jenny Deakin, manager of the EPA’s Catchment Science and Management Unit, said the report had used data from a network of more than 2,000 monitoring stations, and the EPA had been able to separate the impact of nitrates and phosphorus used in farming, from waste water treatment plants and other sources.