Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Commission's stance on wells could get nasty

Who actually owns the water beneath the ground? And should landowners have the right to sink wells to extract water without having to pay for it?

These are very pertinent questions in light of the accusation by the EU Commission that Ireland has "incorrectly" interpreted and implemented the Water Framework Directive.

The problems centre on the issue of private wells. A recent communication from the Commission to the Government appears to suggest that all groundwater is either owned by the State or, at the very least, the State has a duty to control its extraction.

It is unclear at this stage how the Commission's stance will impact on private well owners. A Department of Environment spokesman said officials were taking legal advice on the Commission's communication and that Ireland would continue to engage with Brussels to achieve a "satisfactory outcome".

However, achieving a "satisfactory outcome" to this particular problem may not be all that easy given the very fundamental issues at stake.

Already the imposition of water charges has provoked a lot of anger in rural areas.

The levying of multiple meter charges on fragmented farm holdings, particularly in the west and southwest, has been viewed as a stealth tax.

The fact that this metering service has been contracted out by local authorities to private water companies has added to the sense of resentment.

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The cost of public water supplies is also significant. Annual water charges for domestic use and a dairy farm with 100 livestock units are now running at around €1,600.

With water costs at these levels, it is hardly surprising that many livestock farmers are considering sinking wells.

However, such an option might not be feasible if water charges are also to be levied on private wells.

The Water Framework Directive is a useful piece of legislation but in adopting a strict and inflexible interpretation of it, Brussels is once again guilty of taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Water is an essential resource that should not be wasted. However, it's a bit rich to equate the serious need for water efficiency in the arid plains of Andalucia with those of the west of Ireland. It's stuff like this that gives Brussels a bad name.

The Commission's position also raises another point. Environment Minister Phil Hogan has indicated that he intends establishing a single water authority for the country.

Should the Commission's interpretation of the Water Framework Directive prevail, any national water authority would be a very powerful and valuable organisation.

One wonders if such a body was in place at the moment, would it be privatised on the Troika's insistence?

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