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Pristine river sites at risk of extinction, report warns

There has been no major improvement in Ireland’s overall water quality in the last six years, with our dwindling pristine river sites at risk of extinction without significant changes, says a landmark EPA report.

The State of the Environment Report, released today, states that we have failed to meet our target to improve the ecological status of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters by 13.6% from 2009 levels.

The target is outlined in the first cycle of the River Basin Management Plan, a recurring six-year action plan to protect, improve and sustainably manage Ireland’s water.

While the quality of our waters remain among the best in Europe, there is still room for improvement, according to EPA Director General, Laura Burke.

“We need to act with a much greater sense of urgency,” she said at today’s launch. “There are many worrying signals warning us that we are in danger.”

There has been a dramatic reduction in our high quality rivers over the past three decades, declining from over 500 in the late 1980s to only 21 recorded during the latest monitoring period of 2013 to 2015.

According to the report, unless effective measures are urgently put in place, our remaining high quality river sites “could become extinct from the Irish landscape”.

“We’ve lost the best of our best water quality,” said EPA environmental scientist, Andy Fanning. “We do see there’s a need for focusing in on protecting the high quality and restoring those ones that have dropped.”

He said, however, that this will be a very difficult task to achieve if rivers fall below the second highest ecological quality rating of 4.5.

“The step from 4.5 back to five is like a gently rising slope. But once you get to four, it’s like climbing a mountain to get back up to that five,” he said.

Ireland also falls short in meeting the full legal requirements of the EU Drinking Water Directive and is noncompliant with the Directive on the treatment of urban waste water.

“This isn’t about Europe making unreasonable demands on Ireland,” said Ms Burke. “It’s about making sure that, at a minimum, for example, the water we drink, or the water we swim in will not make us sick.”

Untreated sewage is still discharged from 43 areas across the country, over half of which are located in Cork, Donegal and Galway, with their elimination by 2019 outlined as a priority. Of the 43 locations, 36 discharge directly into estuarine or coastal locations across the country.

Together with agriculture (53 per cent), municipal sources (34 per cent) account for almost 90 per cent of suspected cases of water pollution, and will dent any potential improvement in water quality unless adequately managed.

The report also highlights the “unacceptable” number of public water supplies on long-term boil notice and calls for “major investment” to ensure pollution risks from the likes of cryptosporidium, lead and trihalomethane contamination are eliminated from our drinking water.

The EPA has funded over 100 water-related projects since 2007, with a new risk-based approach to water catchment management outlined as key to improving and protecting water quality across the country.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times in November 2016