Northern Ireland will be hit with EU fines if money isn’t invested in cleaning up waterways.
DOE officials revealed that fewer than a third of Northern Ireland’s water bodies (28%) are of good ecological status.
It will be a significant challenge to reach the 59% target, set down in the EU’s Water Framework Directive, by 2015.
Gabriel Nelson, head of the DOE’s Water Management Unit, told Stormont’s Environment Committee that it is starting to see some improvements.
To fund the six-year plan to meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive, the DOE applied to the Executive for £8.9m in the Comprehensive Spending Review but was turned down, Mr Nelson said.
The department has had to pay for it by reprioritising its finances to make up some of the costs
Some funding is also due to come from the plastic bag levy.
Mr Nelson said: “There’s a clear trend that nutrient levels in rivers are stabilising and showing a downward trend. We can also see indicators that plant life is showing improvement.”
But when asked by committee members if fines are a threat, he admitted: “It’s a six-year programme and we have four years to carry it through but that means a significant challenge to achieve the 59% target.”
East Londonderry MLA John Dallat said he had seen significant damage in the Lower Bann river.
“Given that the source of this income appears to be revenue from a plastic bag tax, that’s not a very good omen for avoiding infraction proceedings in 2016,” the committee member said.
“Should you not be screaming from the rooftops about this?”