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Nature needs clean water as much as we do

Photo: Elina Leiner

    Photo: Maili Lehtpuu

The Environmental Board strives to guarantee the quality of Estonia’s ground water and of its rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. By issuing permits for the special use of water we keep activities which may have an impact on all forms of water under control.

Permits for the special use of water are required by companies and individuals who are seeking, for example, to lower the level of a body of water or to turn it into a dam or reservoir, or to use a river for the generation of hydroelectricity. The first thing that must be established is the area and number of households that the planned activity may affect. It must also be made certain that the activity will not cause any damage to the environment. Here the Environmental Board’s role is often to act as a go-between in achieving agreement between the developers and representatives of the public interest.

Companies and individuals who wish to draw water from the surface water must also apply for a permit for the special use of water. This is also the case if they wish to extract a large amount of ice, ground water or mineral water, or if they are seeking to draw off effluent or other water-polluting substances into a recipient. The state and sensitivity of the body of water in question are taken into account when issuing such a permit. Checks are also made to ensure that the company is using the best possible technology, preventing pollution and the destruction of valuable plant and animal communities.

Where the special use of water is concerned it is important that water resources are used economically. For example, modern fish farms redirect water that has already been used back into their system once it has been purified.

A permit for the special use of water is also needed if someone is looking to deepen a body of water, install something at the bottom of one or sink solid substances in one, as well as for the deepening of boating channels and the construction of sea walls and landing places.

The obligation to compensate damage increases the sense of responsibility

The Environmental Board is increasingly applying the principle of environmental liability in order to maintain the quality of the bodies of water in Estonia. If irreversible damage is caused to a body of water or the groundwater as the result of an activity, the party who caused it is not only fined, but also obliged to make amends for the full extent of the damage. In terms of restitution this often requires significantly more time and money than a simple fine would have involved.

There have been cases where unlicensed reservoir operations have cut off the spawning grounds of fish and, over the years, seen them collecting more and more sediment. The principle of environmental liability requires the party who constructed the reservoir to either clear the spawning area of the sediment or establish new spawning grounds for the fish. Such a response does not allow the problem to be ‘paid off’, but rather instils in people a greater respect for the natural environment and how valuable it is.

Drinking water must be protected against nitrates

The natural nitrate ion content of ground water close to the surface level is between 5 and 10 mg per litre. The quality of water in wells depends on the agricultural production and land use in the area surrounding them, which can change over time. In most cases, water which seeps through the surface layers will clean itself before reaching the groundwater. However, if the ground cover is thin and the underlying limestone riddled with karsts and fissures, the water will pass from the surface to the groundwater very quickly. If there are a large number of karst areas in the region, polluted water may make its way into a well from a great distance, rendering the water unfit for drinking.

Such areas, of which the Pandivere uplands are an example, are particularly sensitive to nitrate pollution. Residents have been using ground water close to the surface level for years, since it is the easiest to obtain. The thin but fertile layer of soil in the Pandivere uplands has long favoured agriculture in the region. The nitrate ion content of water in shallow wells on land which is intensively farmed exceeds the permitted norm (50 mg per litre).

In order to ensure the availability of high-quality drinking water to the residents of the Pandivere area, a programme was launched in 2003 for the replacement of polluted wells. With the involvement of the Environmental Board, more than one hundred new wells with clean drinking water have been constructed to date.

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