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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Alamy Stock Photo The report looks at how local authorities could better monitor pollution from farms.
Water quality

Dozens more inspectors needed to tackle the 'wicked problem' of farm water pollution

The report found there to be just 11 full-time equivalent council staff for farm inspections across the country.

FARM INSPECTIONS FOR water pollution have declined overall through the past decade, with almost 60 qualified investigators needed to bring Ireland’s oversight needs up to speed.  

That’s according to a draft report carried out for local authorities by its representative body the City and County Managers Association to examine council resources for farm inspections. 

It found that no central database for recording inspections exists as part of its survey of local authorities. 

The CCMA also found there to be just 11 full-time equivalent staff for farm inspections, with many holding other roles in their relevant council department such as in environment or roads.

As a result, according to the draft report, the “same handful of staff” in a council must monitor various areas including noise, waste and water.

It means that the number of farm inspectors for potential water pollution in Ireland’s rivers, lakes and estuaries is at just 16% of what’s required.

To address this, the report urges the recruitment of 56 additional inspectors. The move was costed at €4.8m per year, with the funds going towards maintaining a total panel of 67 full-time inspectors. 

The document was prepared as an interim proposal for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage last November as part of a submission ahead of the Budget later this year. 

It was released to Right to Know, an information and transparency advocacy organisation, whose co-director Ashley Glover sought the records. 

“The issue is how many inspections weren’t taking place – and that’s what we wanted to try and find out. But what we see is the real lack of a system to try and maintain our rivers and lakes,” Glover said.

“We see from the report that councils are not equipped to do the job and also that they feel they are being piled on more and more with added environmental responsibilities without having the resources to get a handle on any of it.” 

The report looked at how water quality safety regulations are maintained, as part of government guidance issued to farmers when using nitrogen on their farms.

Levels of nitrogen, a nutrient that can enter water sources due to human waste water and activities like agriculture and forestry, were flagged in a report this week by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found water quality had not improved in Ireland’s rivers or lakes in recent years.

Nitrogen can cause an overgrowth of plants and algae that in turn clog water channels, suck up oxygen, and harms fish.

Nitrogen levels, which increased between 2021 and 2022 due to agricultural fertilisers and manure, are too high in 40% of rivers and 20% of estuarine and coastal water bodies.

In rivers, the south east of the country has had the highest nitrate concentrations over time of any region, which the EPA associates with intensive farming, freely draining soils and lower effective rainfall.

Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to investigate the health and air quality impacts from slurry spreading on farmland. Support this project here.  

In the CCMA report, water quality is said to have been described as a “wicked problem”, which the authors said means it is a “multi-sectoral, complex issue and therefore difficult to solve”. 

It noted that the underlying requirement of the European Commission is for “more action on the ground with detailed reporting” on farms.

If it’s successful in securing funding, staff “would be on the ground in mid-2024″ according to the report. 

Inspections can be a contentious issue between government agencies, as reported on by The Journal recently when the EPA claimed that the Department of Agriculture had pressured it into not releasing its information on farms that pump water from farms.

Despite consecutive EPA reports criticising water quality, the report found that the issue generally doesn’t appear on the agenda for elected councillors. 

“… in general, it is not on the Elected Members’ radar of importance with many focused on other issues such as flooding, waste, dog fouling, traffic management,” the report said. 

The report shows a fall in the total figure for agricultural inspections carried out by local councils. 

From 2008 to 2011, it ranged between 5,000 and 6,000 inspections annually but this steadily declined until 2016.  

While it had been steadily increasing up to 2019, it has sharply declined since the pandemic to fewer than 3,000 inspections. It may be next year until we see how much it has recovered.  

FykqFmUWwAIYP-j A slide from the CCMA report on farm inspections.

It noted that some discussion among department officials and the EPA over how often farms should be inspected. 

Noting that an inspector on average could carry out 60 farm inspections per year, it found that three days was required on average per inspection. 

It added that there are “1,000 water bodies have agriculture as a significant pressure” but found that there are issues around resourcing oversight of various water sources.

Lower down the scale, it said that to “protect waters in not-at-risk areas it was concluded that 1% of these farms (648) should be inspected annually”. 

However, this would mean a farm would “only be inspected once in every 100 years”.

While the report said a figure of 5% was “felt to be more appropriate” it decided to stick with the 1% figure “from a practical and funding viewpoint”.

This figure would be reviewed after the first two years of inspections, the report said. 


Elsewhere, councils expressed frustration regarding “the many and numerous priorities coming from the EPA”, which they felt has been “compounded by the relatively new areas of air, noise, climate change and biodiversity” requiring monitoring and improvement.

“It was stated that these many priorities effectively mean there is no priority,” the report said. 

“While there are separate EPA sections and personnel for water, air, noise . . . waste, it is the same handful of staff in a LA whom they were dealing with.”

It added: “There was a strong consensus that there should be a move back towards reempowering the Local Authority sector through increasing staff resources within the Local Authorities themselves.”

Councils would also “strongly welcome” a national data management system so that everyone could “sing from the same hymn sheet” in terms of recording, inputting and producing data on farms.

“They would also like to show their ‘work done’ more clearly,” the report said.

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