Thursday, 18 February 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for taking the time to address this matter, which is quite prevalent in the constituency he and I represent. In a vast majority of cases people do not tend to have many interactions with different State bodies, unless there is a specific reason. What has happened, over generations in some cases, is that there has been very little expectation of the State in certain matters. However, people have one basic expectation and it is one that is shared across most of the developed world. They expect not to have the smell of fecal matter in their residential areas or to have other sewage floating into their communities and onto their farms from nearby rivers. Unfortunately, that is happening not only in my constituency but also in too many places across the country.
Due to insufficient infrastructure on the Shannon, in particular, and poor planning of housing developments as well as a considerable number of contributory factors, water is being drained into the sewerage system during high floods and then released back into river systems. This was also mentioned during the debate on the Land Development Agency Bill 2021 by another Deputy. In my area, residents in and around Athlone have been complaining for years about the odours coming from waters that are flowing very close to their homes in many cases. They have consistently raised concerns about the health implications, the impact this is having on their property prices, their reduced standard of living and their ability to enjoy their community fully.
Large parts of Athlone's existing network are based on combined sewers, which is a sewage collection system designed also to collect surface water run-off. Combined sewers can cause serious water pollution problems during combined sewer overflow events when wet weather flows exceed the sewage treatment plant's capacity. Works to rectify this are ongoing and the residents are happy about that. However, last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Irish Government had breached its environmental obligations in several locations across the country. This is not new, therefore, either to the Government or to residents. The European Commission had initially given a deadline of 2005 to resolve the nationwide problem of raw sewage being discharged into rivers.
The impact this has outside of the residential areas is also quite profound in areas of natural beauty and potential tourist attractions. Recently, in Lilliput, another area of Westmeath, the bathing waters were again rated as poor, which also happened in 2018. It is an incredibly popular area. We are lucky to be from what is known as the lake county, given the bodies of water we have, but the way we are taking care of them and valuing them is simply not fit for purpose. It is not just an issue for local residents. Due to the impact this is having, our ecology, wildlife and biodiversity are being damaged. We cannot expect to have a vibrant aquamarine system when we are polluting the waterways to such an extent.
The effect this has on fish and plant life in our waters is detrimental and in many cases devastating. One need only speak to some of the local anglers or a marine biologist in the area to hear them say the same. This is on top of the lack of regulation and enforcement in respect of toxic pesticides. Moreover, there are numerous instances of oil spills and other industrial residue being pumped into the waterways and lakes across the State.
I thank my constituency colleague, Deputy Clarke, for raising this issue and providing me with an opportunity to give an overview of the current work being undertaken to address the quality of our waters.
Water quality in Ireland is facing complex pressures and increasing demands due to population change and a previously growing economy that we all hope will continue after we emerge for the current pandemic, as well as a changing climate. The EU Water Framework Directive establishes a common approach framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater. The overall aim of the directive is to maintain high quality and good status waters where they exist and to restore waters that do not meet these criteria. River basin management planning, structured in six-year cycles, is the tool prescribed by the directive for achieving these aims.
In response, the Government set out a strategy for water quality in the river basin management plan for the years 2018 to 2021. This was supported, among other measures, by a new water quality resource in the local authorities' waters programme; the Irish Water Strategic Funding Plan 2019-2024; and A new capital investment for rural water services. The plan built on the lessons learned from the first planning cycle plan and improved upon the previous approach. The new local authority water programme is co-ordinating measures at local and regional levels. We also now have An Fóram Uisce. This is an assembly for civil society, community groups and water quality sector representatives, which gives them a voice in the guardianship of our natural waters and water services.
Our policy is to ensure we provide the right measure in the right place. It is clear that one-size-fits-all measures are not fully effective. Where the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, identifies agriculture as a significant pressure, a free advisory service is now available to farmers in priority areas. Where urban wastewater is causing an impact, Irish Water is investing in improved services and infrastructure. The Government also improved the financial supports to help bring domestic septic tanks up to standard.
However, our rivers, lakes and estuaries are all complex, natural systems. An ongoing cycle of assessment and planning must continue in tandem with the implementation of measures to protect and improve water quality. In this regard, as one of the commitments in the programme for Government, we plan to launch a new revised and strengthened river basin management plan in 2022 to protect Ireland's water quality and ensure we have a well-protected environment and vibrant communities.
I appreciate the reply from the Minister of State. In reality, while we have these bodies and authorities that are responsible for certain areas, it has been my experience that when an issue emerges, such as an oil spill on a body of water, it is treated essentially like a hot potato. It is passed from one to the other and another until somebody finally takes responsibility, but at that point the damage has already been done. These are not isolated incidents that happen now and again. They are happening far too often and sometimes there are severe cases.
They have a huge impact, far beyond what they would have if there had been quicker responses. Unless comprehensive legislation to protect our waterways is brought forward quickly, the situation will continue to get worse.
Many of our rivers and lakes are already in a critical condition, their biodiversity is severely reduced and the numbers of fish and other wildlife has been depleted. The possible health and economic side effects are more reasons for us to take urgent action before it is too late. It is not good enough for any agency of the State to avoid responsibility. That is something we have seen far too often, namely, where the matter is kicked down the road in the hope that it will become somebody else's problem or that someone else will pick it up as an issue to be addressed. That is something that requires time but when it comes to issues such as this, we do not have the luxury of time. There needs to be a much more urgent and coherent approach to these events when they happen. What is needed is a radical new approach to how we treat our natural water sources. In order to achieve meaningful results, we need to provide the authorities with powers that they can actually enforce. We need sewerage and defence systems and regulations around pesticides and run off material, but we also need to crack down on the dumping of industrial waste, rubbish and any other waste material into our waters. We need to see these people prosecuted for their actions.
I again thank Deputy Clarke for her comments on this matter, many of which I agree with. As part of the implementation of the EU water framework directive in Ireland, the EPA is charged with monitoring water status in order to establish a comprehensive overview of the water quality within each river basin district. The EPA's most recent report in this regard sets out in stark terms the current and future challenges we, as a country and as a society, face, but it also points the way forward with practical and positive, though perhaps not painless, actions that must be taken in order to address these issues.
My Department is preparing for the third river basin management plan for Ireland to cover the period 2022 to 2027. Building on the work on the second cycle, this plan will again describe the main pressures and activities affecting water status, set out the environmental objectives to be achieved up to 2027 and identify the measures needed to achieve these objectives, including those highlighted by the EPA. However, given the extent, depth and complexities of the measures required, it is now more important than ever that all sectors of society engage fully and take all the necessary actions to protect and improve our water quality. With a draft river basin management plan due to be published shortly and put out for a six-month public consultation, I take this opportunity to urge all stakeholders to engage in the process and ensure that we achieve the best possible water quality in our rivers and lakes.