Teagasc’s agricultural catchments specialist Eddie Burgess has warned that the latest EPA report does not bode well for retaining the nitrates derogation.

“This report does not show the improvement that will be sought by the European Commission to support a strong case to retain the derogation,” he told the Irish Farmers Journal on Wednesday.

The process of Ireland applying for a derogation begins in December 2024.

However, he added that there were no surprises in the report, given that it is based on a three-year average.

“Practices at farm level have not radically changed in the last year. The biggest difference last year was the intensity of the weather, including a drought in June and non-stop rain after that. That weather was very likely to increase nutrient loss to water.”

‘Impossible bar’

The EPA report notes that river nitrate concentration values lower than 4mg/l of nitrate and lower than 8mg/l of nitrate “are needed to maintain high and good quality surface waters, respectively”, even though the same report notes there is “currently no environmental quality standards for nitrate in rivers”. The nitrate standard for drinking water is 50mg/l.

The catchments specialist pointed out that the 4mg/l and 8mg/l standards have no regulatory basis, and previous EPA reports said these standards were simply “considered by the EPA” to be indicative of high and good quality.

“Those figures are significantly lower than the 11.5 estuarine value and seem to be becoming more and more entrenched,” he said. “Rivers in an agricultural setting with free draining soil will find it very difficult to reach those standards. Even a river on an organic farm on free-draining soil will not easily achieve that level of nitrate,” he said.

Describing the levels as an impossible bar to reach in some settings, he said it appeared that even where progress is being made reducing nitrates levels, farmers are being told it is not good enough.

“If my doctor told me to reduce my cholesterol level from seven to five and I reduced it to 5.5, I would not have got to five, but it would still be a huge achievement.

“Where improvements are made, they should be acknowledged rather than highlighting that they are not good enough.”