Water quality of our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal areas continues to decline, says EPA

  • Water quality in Ireland has further declined.  While improvements are being made in some areas, these are being offset by declines in water quality elsewhere.
  • At the current level of progress, Ireland will fail to meet the EU and national goal of restoring all waters to good or better status by 2027
  • Only just over half of surface waters (rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters) are in satisfactory condition (that is they are achieving good or high ecological status and are able to sustain healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants). 
  • The deterioration in estuaries and coastal waters is mostly along the southeast and southern seaboards and is due to agricultural run-off.  Urgent and targeted action is required to reduce nitrogen emissions from agriculture in these areas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today published the Water Quality in Ireland Report 2016-2021 which provides the latest assessment of the quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal and groundwaters.  The report shows that water quality in Ireland is not as good as it should be.  Only just over half of rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters are in satisfactory condition.  The overall ecological health of these surface waters has declined across all water body types since the last assessment (2013-2018). This means these water bodies are less able to support healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants.  While the decline in water quality of our rivers and lakes is relatively small (one and three percent of waterbodies respectively), the number of estuaries and coastal water bodies in satisfactory condition has decreased by almost 16 percent and 10 percent respectively.  These declines are mostly along the southeast and southern coasts where nitrogen emissions from agricultural activities are having a significant negative impact on water quality. Excess nitrogen causes algal blooms in our estuaries which can damage the ecosystem, and excess nitrogen in drinking water can pose a risk to human health.Commenting on the report, Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment, said:
“The scale of the declines in our estuaries and coastal waters is alarming.  In recent years the EPA highlighted that nutrient levels in our rivers and groundwaters are too high and that trends were going in the wrong direction. We are now seeing the impact of these emissions on our estuaries and coastal waters.  Areas such as Cork Harbour, Wexford Harbour and the Slaney, Suir and Nore estuaries have lost their good water quality status. This directly impacts the marine biodiversity and ecological value in these areas”.      
The report highlights that since the last assessment published in 2019, the number of monitored water bodies in satisfactory condition has declined by:

  • 1 percent in rivers, 
  • 3 percent in lakes,  
  • 16 percent in estuaries, and
  • 10 percent in coastal waters. 

The main pressures on water quality are agriculture, physical changes such as land drainage and dredging, forestry activities and discharges from urban wastewater.  These activities can lead to run-off of nutrients, sediment and pesticides and damage to the physical habitat of waterbodies.  The number of waterbodies impacted by urban wastewater remains high, but it is reducing, and the trend is going in the right direction.  The number of waterbodies impacted by agriculture has, however, increased in recent years.  Mary Gurrie, Programme Manager, added:“Improvements in water quality are being made, particularly in the priority areas for action where there has been focussed action to restore water quality in the past three years.  This shows that improvements to water quality can be made when actions are targeted.  However, the gains made are being wiped out by declines in water quality elsewhere.”  The EPA is calling for urgent and targeted action to protect and restore water quality in the next River Basin Management Plan (2022-2027), and full implementation of, and compliance with, the Good Agricultural Practice Regulations.  

The full report and a  summary report   are available on the EPA website.  Further information on water quality data and catchment assessments is available on  www.catchments.ie.  
Ecological status: The assessment of ecological status includes looking at the water quality (e.g. concentrations of nutrients and chemicals), biology (fish, insects and plants living in the water) and the physical habitat of each water body and assigning an ecological status to each.  An ecological status of ‘high’ or ‘good’ is considered satisfactory; a status of ‘moderate’, ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ is unsatisfactory. Water Body: A water body in this report is an area of water which is usually either the whole part of a lake or coastal water, or a section of a river or an estuary (e.g. Lough Ree is one water body whereas the River Lee is divided into nine water bodies for monitoring purposes).
Nitrate: Nitrate is a form of nitrogen which is a nutrient and essential for plant growth. Too much nitrogen in a water body can lead to the over-growth of plants and algae that outcompete and displace other flora and fauna. This excessive growth can also cause oxygen depletion and damage the ecology of our water bodies.  Our estuaries and coastal waters are particularly sensitive to high nitrogen concentrations.  The main source of excess nitrate in the environment is agriculture, with waste water also contributing. Nitrate concentrations above the Drinking Water Standard can pose a risk to human health, particularly for young children.
Phosphorus: Phosphorus is a nutrient which is essential for plant growth. As with nitrogen, too much phosphorus in a water body can lead to the over-growth of plants and algae which disturb the ecosystem.  Excess phosphorus is a particular concern for the ecological health of rivers and lakes.  The main sources of excess phosphorus in the environment are agriculture and waste water.
Water Framework Directive (WFD): The Water Framework Directive is the overarching directive to protect and improve water quality across Europe. The main objective of the WFD is to achieve at least good status in all waterbodies by protecting water bodies that are at high and good status and restoring waterbodies which are not.
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.  A new plan will is due to be published in 2022.  Further information about the National River Basin Management Plan is available on the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage website.Prioritised Areas for Action (PAAs): There were 190 Prioritised Areas for Action (PAAs) identified in the River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021. The water bodies in these areas are subjected to targeted action aimed at bringing about an improvement in water quality.Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Regulations: The European Union (Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters) Regulations commonly referred to as the ‘Nitrates Regulations’ or ‘GAP Regulations’ give legal effect to Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme.  The Nitrates Action Programme is a requirement of the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) which aims to protect water quality from pollution by agricultural sources and to promote the use of good farming practice.  The most recent Regulations are S.I. No. 393/2022 -European Union (Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters)(Amendment) Regulations 2022 and S.I. No. 113/2022 European Union (Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters) Regulations 2022.

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