Published today, Ireland Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new research report outlines strategies to protect pristine waterbodies from degradation.

The report, funded by the EPA and undertaken by a project team led by Bernadette Ní Chatháin and RPS, says that waterbodies in pristine condition – also known as high status waters – such as rivers with healthy populations of freshwater pearl mussel or juvenile salmon, require very high standards of protection.

EPA deputy director general, Dara Lynott, said: “The number of water bodies that are in pristine condition has declined significantly in recent decades. This work, funded by the EPA STRIVE research programme, will contribute to the evidence base required in developing actions to prevent further loss to our cleanest rivers.”

The key findings of the report show there has been a dramatic loss of water sites that are in pristine condition in the period 1987-2008.

It also found that relatively low intensity activities can cause damage. For example, field drainage or fertilisation, one-off housing, forestry activities, wind farms, animal access to waters and sheep dip pesticides, while the key causes of ecological damage at pristine sites are domestic wastewater treatment systems, such as septic tanks, and accidental releases of pollutants.

The research found that addressing small impacts is more cost effective than restoring ‘poor’ quality water sites to ‘good’ quality water sites on a large-scale.

Commenting on the findings, consultancy firm RPS’ Fiona Murphy said: “It is important to note that the smallest pressure can impact on waterbodies that are in pristine condition. The input of a few grams of phosphorus or a slight increase in silt, for example, will have a much more damaging impact on the ecology of a pristine system than the same addition to an already polluted system.

“The research findings clearly point to the need to develop and implement measures to protect high-status, pristine water bodies from becoming degraded.”

“We have identified two requirements in particular: much tighter planning controls for those areas which are fortunate to have pristine water catchments and a code of best practice which would set out control mechanisms in sensitive areas for the use of pesticides, the establishment and maintenance of forestry and currently unregulated activities such as overgrazing,” she added.

Leigh Stringer

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