Attention: Pesticides in Swiss drinking water

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Excessive pesticides have been measured in every fifth catchment area of drinking water. Now the water suppliers are requesting a complete ban on the use of these agents.

Farmers spread over 2,000 tons of pesticides every year in order to protect their harvests against pests and disease. Toxic residue ends up not only in streams and lakes, but also in groundwater, the main source of drinking water in Switzerland. "Organic pesticides, their degradation products and other trace substances can be detected in Switzerland at many water measuring points and also in certain drinking water catchment areas", warns the professional association of water suppliers in a new policy paper. And adds: "The identified trend is alarming."

The latest data from the National Groundwater Quality Monitoring Network (Naqua) explains the reason for this concern. According to this data, at every fifth measuring point of drinking water catchment areas pesticides or their degradation products are measured in a concentration that is above the tolerance value of 0.1 micrograms per litre. In areas of intensive farming this value is even exceeded at 70 percent of the measuring points.
"Action is needed", says Martin Sager, Director of the Swiss Gas and Water Industry Association. "It is important to avoid more and more and also new substances getting into the water." Otherwise, we will no longer be able to provide near-natural drinking water in the future, without having to spend a great deal of money on treating it first.

Porous protection zones

The water suppliers are therefore requesting stricter laws for the conservation of groundwater as a drinking water resource. In the protection zones directly around the drinking water catchment areas the use of pesticides should be banned entirely. And specific substances generally found in water should be banned from the immediate environment.

At the same time, the association is insisting on the consistent implementation of the relevant regulations because today only 60 percent of the groundwater zones are effectively separated as protection zones. And even in these zones the level of protection is often disappointing, be it due to neighbouring roads, industry or agriculture.

With the measures the association wants on the one hand to safeguard the groundwater and on the other hand to also prevent having to take more radical action. At present two committees are gathering signatures from the public for new initiative projects: The petition for a referendum "For a Switzerland without synthetic pesticides" calls for a general ban on synthetic pesticides. The initiative "For clean drinking water and healthy food" addresses the farmers. Anyone who uses pesticides or antibiotics on their farms should no longer receive direct payments from the state in the future.

Appeal to the farmers

The water suppliers consider such solutions too general and not capable of securing a political majority. It also bothers them that in their campaign the initiators suggest that the quality of the tap water today is of insufficient quality and it is not monitored sufficiently. "The quality of the drinking water is still very good", says Martin Sager.

His association advocates instead that the requested improvements be agreed effectively and with binding effect in the pesticides action plan currently being prepared by the Bundesrat (Federal Assembly). And he pleads with the next agricultural reform to orientate the incentives in the system of direct payments more on ecological criteria. "We expect that the farmers will manage using less or no pesticides in the sphere of influence of the drinking water catchment areas", says Sager.

At the same time, the association is also calling on the regulatory authorities. He criticised the Federal Office for Agriculture for still approving the use of pesticides today whose ecological risk is too high. And added that it is necessary to consider transferring the approval process to a neutral body.

Against this background the water suppliers have decided not to support the pending initiative projects. However, if the federal government fails to act, they want to examine other political initiatives.

NZZ, Attention: Pesticides in Swiss drinking water:, Retrieved 10.07.2019.

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