I am pleased to have the opportunity afforded by this debate to comment on the position in relation to water quality generally, and in particular in the River Shannon catchment. I propose to outline the measures in place and being developed to protect and improve water quality in this catchment. I am confident Members will agree that these measures are the most appropriate and effective arrangements for the purpose. Members will be aware that statutory responsibility for the protection and improvement of water quality lies with local authorities under the Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts. The Environmental Protection Agency is also responsible, in the context of activities licensable by the EPA and the general functions of the EPA in relation to environmental protection.
The Government fully recognises the importance of our inland waters to the economic and social well being of the country. The generally high environmental quality of Irish lakes, together with the absence of serious pollution from our rivers, are significant national assets. Unlike many EU countries, we depend very heavily on our surface waters for the production of drinking water. In the region of 75 per cent of our requirements are sourced in this way. This contrasts sharply with, say, Denmark which sources over 95 per cent of its requirements from groundwater. The success of the Irish agri-food sector in terms of international trade has been based, among other things, on our green image abroad. Our reputation for high quality water has played an important part in the promotion of this image. The general availability of plentiful supplies of high quality water has also been a factor in the attraction of significant levels of foreign industrial investment in recent years. In addition, our waterways play a key role in attracting visitors to Ireland. More than 250,000 visitors to Ireland annually are principally drawn by active water based pursuits, such as fishing, cruising and sailing. Angling alone accounts for more than 130,000 foreign tourists annually.
The bulk of Irish surface waters are of good quality and are suitable for the most sensitive uses. The latest available EPA report, covering the period 1991-4, showed that 71 per cent of river channel length and 77 per cent of lakes surveyed, came within the unpolluted category. Serious pollution had been reduced from about 6 per cent of river channel length over 20 years ago to less than 1 per cent. This major decrease in serious pollution results from our considerable success in dealing with point source discharges, primarily those from sewage and industry.
Regrettably, however, there has been an increasing tendency over recent decades towards the enrichment of waters beyond natural levels. The phenomenon, known as eutrophication, has primarily resulted from excessive phosphorous loadings from a range of sources. The main sources are agriculture, sewage and industry.
The increase in the levels of slight and moderate pollution to some 28 per cent of river channel length during the period 1991-4 represents the biggest challenge in terms of water quality management in Ireland. In its report, the EPA ascribed, for the first time, the proportion of slight and moderate pollution generated by different sectors. This information has been fundamental to the development of pollution prevention and control strategies. Agriculture was identified as the single biggest contributor to both slight and moderate pollution levels, with sewage and industry also significant contributors.
The Private Members' Bill on the River Shannon Council, in early 1997, quite rightly focused attention on the River Shannon catchment as an important national resource. This catchment drains the centre of the country, covering approximately one-fifth of its land mass. It is important in economic terms in that it supports a wide range of agricultural and agri-based activities: it is a valuable source of drinking water and has major income generating capacity from tourism and recreation. There is understandable concern, therefore, to ensure that the catchment is managed in a sustainable manner.
Shortly after the debate in this House on the Second Stage of the Shannon River Council Bill, 1997, my Department launched a national strategy to combat the eutrophication of rivers and lakes. Its primary objective is to redress the deterioration in water quality caused by excessive inputs of phosphorous. The strategy provides a clearer focus on, and a more systematic approach to, the problem of eutrophication. It emphasises the importance of good water quality to the sustainable development of river and lake catchments in terms of agriculture, tourism, industry and other economic activity.
The strategy provides for no further disimprovement in the quality of rivers and lakes, the setting of interim targets for phased improvements in the condition of rivers and lakes affected by pollution and pursuance of the overall objective of eliminating pollution from all rivers and lakes. The strategy identifies, for the first time, a framework for an integrated approach to water resource management. It endorsed the catchment as the most appropriate basis for the integrated planning and implementation of measures to improve freshwater quality. In addition, it emphasised the need for greater co-operation between local authorities and other interested parties in terms of overall management. The strategy also provided for a wide range of measures to address the various sectors which contribute to the eutrophication problem.
Within my Department, we are engaged in a major programme of investment to upgrade sewage infrastructural facilities throughout the country. Total investment under this programme is estimated at £1.3 billion up to 2005 and is substantially supported by EU Structural Funds. The Lough Derg and Lough Ree catchments, in effect the entire River Shannon catchment, are a particular focus of this investment programme. Both lakes have been identified as sensitive areas for the purposes of the urban waste water treatment directive, on the basis of being eutrophic. Overall investment in the Shannon catchment will be nearly £50 million and will entail substantial upgrading of facilities at 17 locations.
Turning to agriculture, the Government is committed to pursuing a wide range of measures designed to reduce nutrient losses to waters. These measures address issues such as farm practices, nutrient management and deficiencies in storage facilities.
A code of good agricultural practice to protect waters from pollution was launched jointly by my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food in July 1996. The code is being actively promoted among the farming communities by local authorities, Teagasc and the main farming organisations.
Nutrient management planning has also been substantially developed in recent years and is an important element in our drive towards more sustainable agricultural practice. The objective is to achieve the correct balance between water quality protection and nutrient requirements for optimum crop production. This must take account of nutrients already in the soil, nutrients available from animal slurry as well as the recommended application rates and nutrient requirements for different crops.
Nutrient management planning is a requirement under REPS. Some 40,000 farmers currently participate in the REP scheme and it is hoped to extend the scheme to an additional 10,000 farmers by the end of 1999. Nutrient management planning is a requirement under the improved capital allowance scheme for pollution control investment which was introduced under the Finance Act, 1997. It is also obligatory in respect of IPC licensed intensive pig and poultry production.
The Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts were amended in 1996 to allow authorities require farmers to prepare nutrient management plans where this is considered necessary in the interests of water quality protection. In August this year I published guidelines for local authorities on how to maximise use of these new provisions in order to achieve maximum benefit for water quality. In December 1996 Teagasc revised downwards its recommended application rates for phosphorous fertilisers for grassland. These new rates are being promoted actively.
Under the control of farmyard pollution schemes operated by the Department of Agriculture and Food, it is estimated that over £500 million will have been invested by the end of 1999 in respect of new and improved waste storage and animal housing facilities. The Government recently announced that it is committed to reopening a more focused scheme in 1999.
All of the above measures are already beginning to show results. In the past two years it is estimated that there has been a 20 per cent reduction in the use of phosphorous chemical fertiliser, down from 62,000 tonnes per year to some 50,000 tonnes. I am confident that the combination of measures I have outlined will help to reinforce this downward trend.
As I mentioned earlier, the strategy against eutrophication set out targets for the reduction in phosphorous levels in rivers and lakes. These targets were given statutory effect in July this year when I made regulations prescribing national water quality standards for phosphorous. The regulations establish clear targets and a clear timeframe for implementation. First, as a minimum, specified levels of improvement in the condition of rivers and lakes must be achieved within a ten year timeframe. Benchmark conditions will be as recorded by the EPA. Second, local authorities and the EPA are required to take all such steps as may be appropriate to secure compliance with the quality standards. This includes a requirement to review all licences involving discharges into water. Third, the EPA will have an overall supervisory role in relation to the exercise by local authorities of their responsibilities under the regulations. By 31 July 1999 each local authority will be required to submit a report to the EPA on the measures to be taken to implement the standards. This will be followed by biannual progress reports by local authorities on implementation of these measures. The EPA will be required to prepare and publish biannual national progress reports on overall implementation.
My Department will monitor progress in implementing the regulations. Our intention will be to adopt new standards towards the end of the ten year period with a view to achieving still further improvements in water quality conditions.
One of the key concerns identified during the Second Stage debate on the Shannon River Council Bill, 1997, concerned the effectiveness of arrangements for water quality management in the Shannon catchment. This concern was understandable given the background of deteriorating water quality conditions in Lough Derg and Lough Ree. Equally, there was concern at the time at the extent of the remit proposed for the council. In particular, there was a need for further examination of the implications of the role envisaged for the council for existing statutory arrangements in areas such as pollution control, fishing development, habitat protection, environmental management in general and inland waterways management.
Recent developments in terms of the catchment based approach to water resource management have addressed a number of concerns in this area. Central to this has been the identification of the catchment as the appropriate focal area for integrated water quality management and protection. The catchment based approach has now been firmly established in Ireland with considerable success. The catchment based approach, for example, provides an effective framework for the delivery of investment in waste water treatment facilities. This approach has been the basis of applications for Cohesion Fund assistance. Already, applications have been approved in respect of seven catchments throughout the country, namely, Loughs Derg, Ree and Leane and the Rivers Liffey, Boyne, Suir and Barrow. Total investment in these catchments will be approximately £130 million.
The major programme of investment in the Shannon catchment involves the upgrading of facilities at 17 locations. Major improvements have already been completed at Athlone, Ballinasloe, Birr, Nenagh and Tullamore. In all cases, phosphate reduction facilities are in place. In addition, work is under way at Ballyjamesduff, Boyle, Moate, Monksland, Portumna, Roscrea and Roscommon. Again, phosphate reduction facilities are being provided in all cases. Schemes are at an advanced stage of planning in respect of Ballaghaderreen, Ballymahon, Granard and Longford.
The level of investment in the Shannon catchment is impressive by any standards and reflects the Government's commitment to tackling the phosphorous contribution from sewage in the catchment. It is estimated that this investment programme will reduce the phosphorus loading from sewage in the Shannon catchment by approximately 78,000 kilogrammes per annum, representing a reduction in the order of 80 per cent.
The results of this investment are already beginning to have a positive impact on water quality. The EPA review of water quality in the Shannon catchment for 1995-7 indicates that there has been a marked reduction in phosphorous concentrations in the River Shannon between Athlone and Shannonbridge and in the lower reaches of the Nenagh river. These improvements can be directly attributed to the phosphorous reduction facilities which have been installed in both the Athlone and Nenagh sewage treatment plants. In addition, monitoring of Lough Derg has indicated evidence of a considerable improvement in water quality, particularly in the middle and lower sections of the lake. The improvement in the overall quality rating for the lake from strongly eutrophic to moderately eutrophic is a positive sign that current strategies are taking effect.
The nationwide measures which are focusing on agriculture and which I referred to earlier are being extensively promoted throughout the Shannon catchment. In so far as industrial discharges are concerned, local authorities and the EPA are now required to review any licence in respect of a discharge to a water body affected by the requirements of the phosphorous regulations. Local authorities and the EPA have been advised of the need to identify at an early stage the measures required from licensees so that licensees can put in place the planning necessary to ensure the targeted reductions in phosphorous levels can be achieved over the timeframe allowed for compliance with the quality standards.
The question of the phosphorous contribution from detergents is also an area I am currently addressing. In this regard, I hope very shortly to finalise a voluntary agreement with the Irish Detergents and Allied Products Association. The agreement will provide for targeted reductions in the use of phosphate based detergents. It will involve a twin track approach which will have both a national and catchment based focus. The Lough Derg catchment is one of a number of catchments where actions under the agreement will be concentrated.
In terms of water quality monitoring, an extensive and co-ordinated programme is being developed. Some 15,000 river, lake and effluent samples will be collected throughout the Shannon catchment each year in order to measure the effectiveness of the catchment management programme. The project partners have established a single, centrally located laboratory based in Roscommon town to undertake the routine monitoring needs of the project. This collaborative approach will ensure the efficient use of personnel and the focusing of resources on sample collection and analysis.
A computerised management system has been developed for the overall catchment. This will provide water quality managers with a powerful facility for monitoring environmental change. It will provide baseline data with which to assess and respond to future developments. Four river sub-catchments have been selected for detailed monitoring. The catchments concerned are Nenagh, Hind, Camlin and Brosna. These were selected on the basis of having the highest export rates of phosphorous to Lough Derg and Lough Ree. The overall monitoring programme has been designed to deliver accurate estimates of the nutrient loading to the Shannon system and to establish baseline water quality conditions throughout. The monitoring and management project will extend over a three year period and consultants have been appointed to carry forward the work in association with all relevant interests.
The lead local authorities are Clare County Council and Roscommon County Council. Implementation of the project is being overseen by an operational management group which is representative of the statutory interests. The participants in this group include the nine relevant local authorities, Bord Na Móna, the Central Fisheries Board, my Department, the ESB, the EPA, the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board and Teagasc. Direct consultation has been taking place with a wide range of bodies and groups. Efforts are also being made to promote public awareness of and support for the project.
I wish to conclude by assuring Members that the catchment-based approach being adopted in respect of Loughs Derg and Ree provides a well-structured and co-ordinated approach to river catchment management. All of the concerns underlying the proposals for a River Shannon Council are addressed without the need for the cost, or separate formalised structure, of such a council. The catchment-based approach provides a well focused and balanced framework for water quality management. It involves a clear, lead role for the local authorities which have statutory responsibility for water management. It includes the direct involvement of the EPA, which has specific licensing functions in relation to discharges by industry, and it facilitates participation by all the relevant statutory authorities, voluntary groups and other local community groups. An extensive monitoring programme is in place and is being further developed, and a very substantial capital investment programme is under way in relation to water services.
I am satisfied that these arrangements represent the most effective response to the water quality management requirements of the River Shannon catchment in the interests of environmental protection and the legitimate economic aspirations of the local communities. For my own part I assure the House that I am fully committed to delivering on all the commitments in our catchment-based strategy, and I am confident that these initiatives will deliver on their objectives.