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Farm and field specific plans needed to improve water quality

Farm and field specific plans needed to improve water quality

The recently published ‘Water Quality in 2023: An indicators Report’ by the EPA has shown no significant change in any of the water quality indicators for Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwaters in 2023.

Citing nutrient pollution from agriculture and wastewater as the biggest issues impacting water quality, the report notes that nitrate and phosphorus levels in rivers, estuaries and coastal waters are largely unchanged.

To discuss the above in more detail and to give an agricultural perspective, Eddie Burgess, Agricultural Catchments Specialist at Teagasc, joined Philip Boucher-Hayes on RTÉ Radio One’s CountryWide on Saturday, June 15.

Eddie first touched on the requirements for Ireland to retain its nitrates derogation – work on which begins in approximately six months’ time - stating that it “is going to be difficult”, before adding that more clarity is needed in terms of the results or improvements required to retain the derogation.

“I know the Commissioner visited Ireland last year and he said that we need to see where water quality is high and good, it stays there. And where it’s not, we need to see improvements. And I think it is possible to see improvements in water quality in the next year and a half,” he said.

Eddie explained that every one of the ~130,000 people managing land in Ireland need to do their part to bring about an improvement in water quality, not just those in receipt of a nitrates derogation or those exceeding the grassland 170kg N/ha limit through having tillage lands or the exporting of animal manures – a cohort of farmers who have gained attention but who are “very engaged on water quality”.

“If they were all brought back under 170[kg N/ha], it is not going to change the metrics of water quality massively. Everybody needs to do their part and different people in different settings with different enterprises are going to have to do different things,” he added.

Such actions include farmers engaging with the Water EIP, ASSAP advisors or Teagasc’s recently launched Better Farming for Water Campaign – 8 Actions for Change.

As nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus are lost by different mechanisms, Eddie noted that farm specific plans will be required to bring about the necessary improvement in water quality. In some cases, depending on the variability of soil types contained within a farm, different parts of a farm may require its own water quality plan.

“We need to be specific when we are targeting these problems rather than saying we have to tackle water quality, and average results over the year for water quality don’t focus enough on what the problem is to try and improve the situation,” Eddie added.

Extreme weather events

The Agricultural Catchments Specialist also touched on how extreme weather events are adding difficulties when it comes to bringing about an improvement in water quality from agriculture.

“There is no doubt that the more extreme weather patterns that we seem to be getting now are making the job of achieving high water quality status more difficult than it was 10 years ago and it will be even more difficult again in 10 years’ time if extreme weather events are more likely to come,” he said.

Providing an example of the above, Eddie touched on some results from the Agricultural Catchments Programme’s monitoring site in Castledockrell, Co. Wexford, following a heavy rainfall event where 20mm of rain fell in 20 minutes, followed by about 10mm in the following hour.

“In the 12-hour period following that, our monitoring station measured very close to twice the annual average phosphorus loss in 12 hours. What typically leaves in one year, twice that left in a 12-hour period and that’s because of extreme weather.”

Learn more about the Teagasc Agricultural Catchments Programme here.

Find out more about the Teagasc Better Farming for Water Campaign here.