A new water quality scheme which would see all farmers in a river catchment given a nitrates and phosphates quota has been proposed by a trio of policy experts.

The proposed scheme would be mandatory for all farmers in each catchment, with payments per hectare made to farmers based on water quality changes measured year on year.

The payments, they outline, would be based on the water quality outcome and payment for measures taken by the farmer to improve water quality. The water quality payment, would feature a bonus payment for farmers in areas where water quality was better than the target level.

The authors suggest that farmers could trade their nitrates and phosphorus quotas within a catchment.

This would allow more intensive farmers to add extra allowances to their farm by trading with less intensive farmers, while keeping the overall catchment under the nutrient limits that would negatively affect water quality.

Osayanmon Wellington Osawe, John Curtis ESRI and Cathal O’Donoghue from University College Dublin (UCD), the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and University of Galway respectively say that major policy changes are needed to achieve step-wise reductions in water pollution from agriculture.

The trio argue that to be effective, a new water quality scheme needs to be attractive to all farms, both intensive and extensive.

They also maintain that any future scheme must be “less complex and be attractive to all farmers irrespective of their farm type, size and specialisation”, noting that simpler scheme design is “vital if adequate farmer buy-in is to be achieved”.

They recommend switching to a catchment-wide scheme on a phased basis, because it will take time for water quality improvements to be recorded and farmers will incur costs immediately.