Water quality in Irish rivers is going in the wrong direction, warns the EPA

The EPA has found that water quality in Irish waters has deteriorated between 2015 and 2017, despite some improvements:

  • 197 river water bodies have improved in quality but 269 water bodies have deteriorated compared with the last full assessment in 2013-2015.  This means a net overall decline of 3% (72 water bodies).
  • The long-term loss of high quality river sites is continuing with a further 0.6% decline since 2015.
  • Most pollution is caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorus entering waters. Despite a long-term reduction, recent data indicates that levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are beginning to rise again.  Unless addressed, this is likely to lead to further declines in water quality in the future.

There have been some positive changes:

  • Serious pollution continues to decrease. Only two river water bodies were seriously polluted in the latest reporting period compared to five in 2013-2015. Historically there were 91 seriously polluted water bodies in the late 1980s.
  • Fish kills are at an all-time low with only 14 reported in 2017 compared to 31 in 2016.

The EPA has today released the Water Quality in 2017: An Indicators Report for Ireland . The 16 indicators in the report provide information on the quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, canals, estuaries, coastal waters, beaches and groundwaters.  The report showed a net overall decline of 3 per cent (72 water bodies) in the water quality in Irish rivers between 2015 and 2017, despite some improvements.

Commenting on the report, Dr Matt Crowe, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment said:

“Clean, healthy water is essential to our health and wellbeing. The signals in this report are not good and tell us that water quality is still getting worse in some areas despite improvements in others.  This is simply unacceptable.  We must do more to halt deterioration in water quality so that we protect this most precious public resource.
“Substantial additional resources have recently been put in place by the State with the creation of the Local Authority Waters Programme and the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advice Programme.  These programmes will support action at local level to address the issues causing water pollution.  We now need to start seeing visible improvements in water quality through the work of these new programmes.  The EPA will continue to play its part in this by providing the science and evidence to support action on the ground and will also continue to report regularly on progress.”

Addressing the main findings of the assessment, Andy Fanning, Programme Manager, EPA Office of Evidence and Assessment said,

“The report highlights that the loss of our best quality waters is continuing.  It is also clear that there is a general decline in river water quality.  Worryingly, this report also shows a rise in nutrient inputs to our seas from our rivers.
“Most pollution is caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorus entering waters. These excess nutrients come from human activities, predominantly our farms and urban areas. The increases are an early warning that we need to address the sources and the pathways by which these nutrients make their way into our rivers and lakes. The success in addressing serious pollution and the reduction in fish kills shows that we can make positive changes when we put our minds to it.”

The report is available on the EPA website. An infographic is also available. The accompanying data are available on https://www.catchments.ie/ . Local information on water quality is available on-line through www.epa.ie and https://www.catchments.ie/ .


Water Indicator Reports: This is the second water indicators report published by the EPA in 2017 (the first relating to 2016 data and this one relating to 2017 data).  It is intended to publish annual indicators reports that will complement and support the EPA’s Water Quality in Ireland reports, produced every three years.  All reports are available on the EPA’s website. EPA website.

Main causes of pollution: The assessment shows that elevated levels of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in waters continues to be the most widespread water quality problem in Ireland. Nutrient losses from agriculture and wastewater discharges from towns and businesses together with physical habitat issues are the primary reasons why the water quality objectives of the Water Framework Directive are not being met.  In relation to agriculture, the pressures relate to diffuse nutrient run-off, sediment from land and point sources associated with farmyards. For wastewater, the main pressure is from urban wastewater discharges and diffuse urban discharges (which include misconnections leading to sewage effluent being discharged to surface water drainage systems).

National River Basin Management Plan: The River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 sets out the actions that will be taken to improve and protect water quality up to the end of 2021.  Further information about the National River Basin Management Plan is available on the

Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government website.

https://www.catchments.ie/ :  A collaborative EPA, Local Authority Waters Programme and Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government website that is used to share information and resources on water in Ireland. It includes water quality assessments undertaken by the EPA for the Water Framework Directive.

Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme:  The Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme is a programme to promote on-farm sustainability best practice to farmers.  The programme is operated by Teagasc and the Dairy cooperatives to provide advice and support to farmers in managing on-farm risks with specific focus on water quality. There are 20 advisors from Teagasc and 10 advisors from the dairy industry on the programme. Farmers can avail of a free and confidential advisory service within the 190 ‘areas for action’ set out in the River Basin Management Programme on a voluntary basis.

Local Authorities Waters Programme: The Local Authorities Waters Programme is a local authority shared service managed by Kilkenny and Tipperary County Councils on behalf of all local authorities.  It has recently commenced local assessments of the causes of water quality issues within the 190 areas set out in the River Basin Management Programme via the work of its catchment assessment team. and coordinates with the water quality work of Local Authorities through agreed regional structures, thereby providing a collaborative approach to river catchment management. It also seeks to engage local communities and promote public participation in the management of our water environment via the work of a team of water community officers.

Water Framework Directive: The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the primary Directive that sets out water quality objectives and common metrics for assessing and reporting on the quality of freshwater in Europe. These assessments are undertaken on a six-yearly cycle, with the outcomes reported by each country in their respective River Basin Management Plans.

Significant pressures: Activities, such as wastewater discharges, industrial discharges or agriculture, that are identified as being significant contributors to surface water or groundwater bodies failing to meet their WFD objectives.

“Bad” category: The WFD category that indicates the worst surface water quality, which are regarded as being seriously polluted.

“Pristine” waters: The best quality waters are assigned a high status WFD category, and a portion of these high status water bodies are defined as being pristine. Sometimes they are also referred to as “Q5” sites (achieving an ecological quality score of 5/5) or reference condition sites, and they are regarded as being largely un-impacted by human activities.

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