Dramatic Loss of Water Bodies that are in Pristine Condition

The EPA has published a new research report that shows there has been a dramatic loss of water bodies in pristine condition due to relatively low intensity activities such as field drainage and one-off housing, as well as pollution. This new research, funded by the EPA and undertaken by a project team led by Bernadette Ní Chatháin, RPS, outlines strategies to protect pristine waterbodies from degradation. 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.

Dara Lynott, Deputy Director General of EPA, says: “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 are:

1 There has been a dramatic loss of water sites that are in pristine condition in the period 1987–2008.

2 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.

3 The key causes of ecological damage at pristine sites are domestic wastewater treatment systems (eg septic tanks and similar), and accidental releases of pollutants.

4 Halting the decline of our pristine sites is fundamental to maintaining spawning grounds for fish and providing a refuge for biodiversity under threat from our developed landscape.

5 Halting the loss of pristine waters can be done by addressing small impacts.  The research found that addressing small impacts is much more cost effective than restoring ‘poor’ quality water sites to ‘good’ water quality sites on a large-scale.

Fiona Murphy, RPS, comments: “It is important to note that the smallest pressure can impact on water bodies 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.”

She continues: “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.”

The study was carried out in close collaboration with the EPA and Local Authorities in support of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. It will provide guidance and information to catchment managers and stakeholders.

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