Water charges will not be levied on the owners of private domestic wells, the EU Commission has confirmed.
In a written reply to a Farming Independent query, a Commission spokesman said moves aimed at a stricter enforcement of the Water Framework Directive were not directed at owners of domestic wells.
The issue came to light when the Commission informed the Government in November that Ireland had "incorrectly implemented" the Water Framework Directive and threatened to refer the case to the European Court of Justice if Ireland failed to comply with the legislation.
However, the Commission has insisted that domestic wells will not be affected by a stricter interpretation of the EU directive. "The directive envisages that member states recover the costs of 'water services'. These include environmental costs," the Commission spokesman said.
"The bottom line regarding wells, etc, is that if there is no environmental impact then there is no need to recover any environmental costs," he added.
However, the Commission said that if a large amount of water was abstracted from a river, lake or aquifer for a private use, this should not be considered "cost free" if it meant that the health of the river or lake suffered or the aquifer was impaired.
The clarification of the Commission's position will come as a major relief to the 200,000 farmers and rural home owners who use private wells as their primary water supply.
It had been feared that charges would be imposed for the extraction of water and this would result in a flat-rate levy, or metred fee, on well owners.
Confirmation of the Commission's position was also welcomed by Ireland West MEP Marian Harkin.
"I welcome the written confirmation that there is no intent by the EU to impose charges for water derived from private wells. This confirms my own discussions with senior EU officials," Ms Harkin said.
"In the past there has been a tendency for the Irish Government to be over zealous in transposing EU regulations when eventually they get around to doing so. Raising the issue at this stage may have headed off the possibility of imposing further inequitable charges on rural dwellers," she added.
The dispute over the directive centres on what is meant by 'water services'. Ireland and the Commission agree that water services include the costs of supplying drinking water and treating urban-waste water (ie, sewage).
However, the Commission considers that water services also includes other uses of water -- something Ireland disputes. Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden were also found to be in breach of the directive and have been threatened with court proceedings.
"The Commission is taking this action because it wants to uphold the idea that water resources always need to be used wisely and with due account for the wider impacts. The Commission's action also helps ensure equity between different water users," the Commission spokesman said.