A two-year overdue River Basin Management Plan “falls far short” of what is needed to protect Ireland’s rivers, lakes and bays to bring them up to a healthy standard, according to the Sustainable Water Network of national and local environmental groups.

“The Plan represents the most coordinated and ambitious roadmap for improving water quality that Ireland has ever produced. The Plan is in fulfilment of requirements under the Water Framework Directive.

Implementation will result in “social, environmental and economic benefits. Communities will benefit from improved waste water treatment, stronger protection of drinking water sources and cleaner waters for recreation…with full recovery in water quality status class expected in 152 water bodies,” he said.

In place since 2000, the legal requirement under the EU Water Framework Directive is to introduce new measures to bring rivers, lakes and bays up to good ecological state by 2021 (with some exceptions to 2027).

Inadequate funding

SWAN however contends this obligation is under-resourced to the extent that 52% of Ireland’s rivers and lakes are failing to achieve the ‘good status’ required by the Directive. “This Plan is sadly consistent with Ireland’s lack of ambition to date, proposing to fix only a small fraction (12%) of these.”

The ‘water environment’ is the final recipient of many human activity by-products such as discharge of raw and inadequately treated sewage; spreading of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides on farmland; unsuitable coniferous forestry; draining of peatland and wetlands and faulty septic tanks.

“Some are well-treated, but many are not and pose a threat to human and environmental health. Far more investment is urgently needed to end this discharge.”

Grant-aid to farmers must shift to supporting farming that prevents water pollution, protects the rural landscape and contributes to sustainable flood management, O’Brien contends.

The low targets for water quality improvement are not in line with legislation and the River Basin Management plan exposes the Irish state to the risk of daily EU fines, SWAN believes.

“This also means communities miss out on enormous benefits of a clean and healthy water environment for recreation, tourism, business, nature and enjoyment.”

The Water Framework Directive 200/60/EU Directive commits EU member states to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies (including marine waters up to one nautical mile from shore) by 2021 with some exemptions until 2027.

The directive requires each member state to publish a River Basin Management Plan setting out a summary of the programme of measures that will be implemented in order to achieve required water quality.

At a glance:

• planned investment by Irish Water of approximately €1.bn in waste water infrastructure and projects in 255 urban areas by the end of 2021 to protect the environment and public health

• deployment of 43 specialist local authority investigative assessment personnel to carry out scientific assessments of water bodies and to drive implementation of measures at a local level

• an Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme, partnership between the State and the dairy industry, consisting of 30 sustainability advisers to engage with farmers to promote agricultural best practice across the dairy sector in 190 targeted ‘areas for action’.

• a Blue Dot Catchments Programme to create awareness, promote best practice and focus efforts and resources to protect highest quality waters

• greater focus on protecting drinking water sources in over 700 public and private drinking water supplies and €73m per annum in investment by Irish Water to reduce leakage, saving 61 million cubic metres of water each

• extension of the local authority-led Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems grant scheme

• a Community Water Development Fund to support community initiatives to improve water quality.