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Improving Water Quality in Ireland

The challenges of Water Quality, Biodiversity and Climate Change will influence farming practices and profitability into the foreseeable future. The agriculture industry is working hard to meet these challenges head on. A team of 36 advisors (20 Teagasc and 16 Co-op) are working on the ground to help farmers improve water quality through the Water Quality and the Agricultural Sustainability, Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP). The ASSAP, working with the Local Authorities Water Programme (LAWPRO), offers farmers water quality focused advice in 190 priority areas for action (PAA’s) identified in Irelands River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) and is a critical part of the national effort to improve water quality.

There are multiple pressures on water in Ireland; industry, waste water treatment plants and septic tanks, forestry, agriculture and urban pressures. The ASSAP focuses its resources on addressing agricultural pressures. The aim of ASSAP is to offer a free and confidential advisory service to farmers located in the PAAs and to provide advice focused on the prevention of nutrient, sediment and pesticide losses to waters with a view to attaining EU water framework directive water quality targets.

When an ASSAP advisor visits a farm they will assess the farm for any potential issues that are having an effect on the water quality in the local stream. In general an advisor will assess the farmyard, nutrient management practices and general land management practices.

So what is impacting water quality in our streams and rivers? The main issue is eutrophication caused by the loss of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) from farmland. Sediment (soil), pesticides and hydromorphology (drainage works and in water structures such as weirs or culverts) also can have a negative impact on water quality.

Nitrogen loss from farming typically occurs on free draining soils. It occurs where nitrogen in the soil is not taken up by grass or tillage crop and is available in the soil to be leached to groundwater by rainfall. Once the nitrogen goes below the root zone of the crop it is lost and ends up in the drainage network and impacts water quality in the estuaries of rivers. This is a particular problem in the south and south east of the country.

Phosphorus loss typically occurs on more impermeable soils. It occurs when these poorer draining soils get saturated with rainfall. This causes water to flow over the surface of the field and brings with any plant available P. It also can wash off sediment to the drainage network. This sediment also contains P which can be released over time and can clog up the beds of streams.

To date there has been very positive engagement from farmers to the programme with 96% of farmers contacted availing of the service. The majority of the pressures identified in the PAA’s are from the diffuse loss of phosphorus, sediment and nitrogen and this accounts for 73% of the pressures identified. The average number of issues identified across farms is five and the most frequently identified issues are concerned with phosphorus and sediment loss to waters by surface runoff, the timing, rates and locations of the application of fertilisers, livestock access to watercourses and streams and the adherence to riparian buffer zones on farms.

At the end of a farm visit the advisor and farmer will agree on where the farmer should focus improvements or actions, if any are required, on the farm. The practical advice will be designed to put ‘the right measure in the right place’ and prevent nutrients and other contaminants from entering water. A written summary of the advice and actions will be provided and a timeframe for completion agreed between them. A series of follow up farm visits will be required to establish the level of implementation of the measures recommended.

The scale of the environmental challenges facing agriculture requires action from all industry stakeholders along with government support to reach the standards required. While farmers in the ASSAP have shown willingness to respond to the challenges they require further advisory and financial supports to be in a position to respond adequately to the increasing asks on the sector.