Agriculture can be a  significant cause of water pollution. Much agricultural activity is exempt from planning permission. In some cases, may be conditions under existing planning permission granted for some purpose.

Only some discharges of agricultural effluents, from point sources are subject to licensing such as intensive livestock and poultry units licensed by the EPA. Other types of discharges may be subject to licence.

The local authority has powers under the water pollution legislation to serve notices for breach of legislation and require remedial action. Equally there may be enforcement under the fisheries legislation by IFI/ Loughs Agency

Nutrient management planning is required by bylaws made by some authorities under the Water Pollution Act. Some commercial operators are subject to licensing by the EPA for water pollution licence. There are regulations prescribing water quality standards in relation to phosphorus.

Water standards based on concentrations of phosphorus are to be achieved by steps taken by the authorities and EPA in discharging their functions under legislation.

Fisheries Offences

Before the modern water pollution legislation was introduced in the 1970s, there was fishing legislation which protected fishing waters. The release of certain materials and deleterious matter into waters is an offence under the Fisheries Act . Deleterious material is  any substance which is injurious or poisonous to fish or their spawning grounds or their food or impairs the usefulness of the bed and soil of the waters as spawning ground.  It is an  offence to cause or permit such matters to enter the water.

The offence is committed regardless of whether the person concerned has been negligent. Farmers can be prosecuted for leakages into water regardless of fault. Legislation is enforced by Inland Fisheries Ireland and the Loughs Agency in its area in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It can be prosecuted summarily in the District Court or with a jury in the Circuit Court.

There is a defence for discharges under a  water pollution licence and operators ,and  where the actions are based on compliance with standards under modern environmental legislation. The offences are still prosecuted because they are strict. Once the discharge water occurs the onus on the person prosecuted to raise the limited defences.

The Department of the Marine have powers to make bylaws under the Fisheries Act prohibiting the discharge of any effluent from sand or gravel washing plants to waters. The Loughs Agency has extensive powers to make regulations.

There are certain other specific prohibitions on the fisheries legislation in relation to damaging oyster beds oyster fisheries muscles periwinkle and cockle fisheries

Local Authorities and Farming

A local authority may make byelaws regarding the correction storage treatment and disposal of any polluting matter used in connection with any operation activity of practice for use or other premises carried on for the purpose of agriculture horticulture or forestry. They may cover the application to land of silage effluent slurry manure fertiliser pesticide or other pollutant  matter or any other operation activity or practice for the purpose of agriculture or forestry. There is procedure for making an adaptation of the bylaws.

A local authority may serve a written notice on the owner of land or the occupier involving the application to land or growing crops or the injection of any silage effluent animal slurry manure fertiliser pesticide or other polluting matter. This may require the person to prepare a nutrient management plan in relation to the activity. This must be submitted to the local authority for approval within five months.

The provision is supervened to some extent by more modern EU legislation effectively managed though the basic payment scheme and its enhancements.

The local authority may institute proceedings whether or not the offence is committed in its area.

Local authorities must monitor surface waters and groundwaters at selected measuring points within the functional area to establish the extent of pollution  from agricultural sources and to determine trends in the occurrence and extent of pollution. They must carry out inspections of farm holdings as is necessary and is coordinated inspection activities inspections undertaken by other public bodies

Nitrates Directive

The so-called Nitrates Directive deals with protection of waters from pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. It covers fertilisers natural and artificial. There is a threshold for nitrates. It seeks to deal with water pollution caused by spreading or discharging livestock effluents and the excessive use of fertilisers. It contains provisions relevant to disposal of sewage sludge. Limits apply to the amount of livestock manure that may be spread in vulnerable zones.

Implementation of the directive  been difficult and has been challenged. In challenges originating in the UK under Human Rights law, the requirement to balance property rights the burden placed on farmers was required to be measured against the common good must be proportionate.

The directive sets out set out  methods by which the objectives were to be achieved. Action programmes were required. In various challenges, various countries, including Ireland were found to have infringed the requirements of the directive.

The Irish action program requires farmers to comply with guidelines on good farming practices and imposing requirements to prepare a nutrient plan and carry out farm surveys as well as byelaws

Implementing Regulations

The European Communities (Protection of Water against Pollution from Agricultural Sources) 2003, replaced in 2006 and updated in 2017 apply for the purpose of protection against nitrate pollution. The  national action plan program contains recommendations on nitrate and phosphorus application rates, the control of farmyard pollution scheme, REPS and EPOS scheme and  good farming practice as promoted by the Department of Agriculture

In effect most environmental controls are achieved through statutory management requirements (SMR) and good agricultural and environmental conditions (GAEC) attached to basic payment scheme payments, or as enhancements. There are guidelines and recommendations on the  control of  pollution from farm wastes. There have been various schemes in addition to the basic requirements involving higher levels of centres and incentives. Advice on pollution is made available to farmers by the Department of Agriculture.

The occupier of land must ensure compliance with the regulations in relation to that holding and keep certain records. Breach of the nitrates regulations is an offence subject on summary conviction to a fine up to €5000 per imprisonment up to 3 months or on conviction on indictment to a fine up to €500,000 and imprisonment up to one year.

Protection of Waters

The European Communities (Good agricultural practice for the protection of waters) Regulations 2014 give effect to the nitrates action programme. This is part of the cross compliance requirements for farmers. They are also legal requirements

They include measures such as periods when the application of fertilisers on land is prohibited limits on the application of fertiliser storage requirements for livestock manure and monitoring of the effectiveness of measures in terms of agricultural practice and impact on water quality. They provide for recommended practice in farmyard a nutrient management as well as the prevention of water pollution from fertilisers and certain agricultural activities

There are limits on spreading livestock manure and slurry with nitrogen values exceeding a certain mass per hectare annually. There are times of the year when fertiliser may not be. There are requirements for overall maximum fertilisation rates for nitrogen and phosphorus. The must be sufficient storage capacity to meet the requirements of the regulations and the requirements applicable to storage facilities. Records are required to be kept which can be inspected.

There are EU directives on dangerous substances requiring the elimination of certain substances of pollutant nature. Other substances listed must meet limit values and meet  objectives for them.

The regulations provide conditions regarding collection and storage of manure and certain other effluents. There are detailed requirements in relation to storage capacity and facilities. The minimum storage facilities are defined with reference to grass arable silage and maize with reference to short-term awful storage. Storage capacity of certain periods are required in respect of certain types of manures. Storage periods for cattle manure vary in three zones A B&C.

The amount of soiled  water that is produced in a holding must be managed and limited. Soiled water covers a variety of contamination types. There are requirements for minimum storage capacities.

Fertilisers and manure are must not be spread during certain periods which differ between zones.

Farmers must take reasonable steps necessary to prevent or minimise the application to land of fertilisers in excess of crop requirements. This is to be achieved by a combination of stocking rate and fertiliser application restrictions.

The stocking rate is determined by the total amount of organic nitrogen on the farm divided by the number of hectares declared in the basic payment scheme application. The calculation of the stocking rate depends on a number of factors relevant to the type of animal and the age. There are limits on the maximum phosphorus fertilisation of grassland. Derogations from the normal stocking maximum must be applied for and obtained from the Department of agriculture. A plan is required which must comply with terms and conditions.

There are restrictions on use of fertilisers. Fertilisers can be spread only during certain periods. There are limits in respect of chemical fertilisers and organic fertilisers and farmyard  manure. They are more stringent  in areas of higher vulnerability.

There are requirements in relation to the spreading of chemical fertilisers organic fertilisers and soil water. Chemical fertiliser cannot be applied to land within 2 m of the surface of a watercourse.

There are restrictions on organic fertiliser and soiled water fertiliser within 200 m (4 to 30 m where the local authority allows) of the abstraction point of any surface watercourse boreholes spring a well used for water for human consumption in water schemes supplying more  than 100 m² more of water per day or serving 500 persons and more. The restrictions are less for smaller schemes. There are similar rules in relation to farmyard manure in the vicinity within certain distances  of a spring or well.

Supplementary feeding points must be more than 20m from surface points or be on bare rock.

Silage bales may not be stored outside farmyards within 20 m of the surface of a watercourse for drinking water abstraction point without adequate facilities for collecting effluent

Fertilisers or soiled  water shall not be applied to land, if it is waterlogged or likely to flood snow-covered heavy rain is forecast within 48 hours or the ground slopes steeply and taking into account factors such as proximity of water soil condition ground cover and rainfall,  there is significant risk of causing pollution.

There are extensive record-keeping and monitoring requirements. Farmers who  breach the limits are  given opportunity to explain why they should not be penalised. The provision for inspections by local authorities and the Department of Agriculture.


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Draft Articles; The articles on this website are in draft form and are subject to further review for typographical errors and, in some cases, updating and correction. It is intended to include references to the sources of materials and acknowledgements in the final version. The content of articles with [EU] in the title and some of the articles in the section on Agriculture are a reproduction of or are based on European or Irish public sector information.

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