Ireland’s Water Quality Needs to be Better Protected – EPA

  • Just over half of Irish surface waters are in a satisfactory condition.
  • Nutrient concentrations in waters are too high and the trends are going in the wrong direction.
  • Nitrate concentrations are now increasing in nearly half of our river and groundwater sites.
  • Phosphate levels are increasing in a quarter of river sites.
  • Concentrations of nitrate are highest in the south and south east of the country where the main source is agriculture.
  • Delivering on the key objectives of Ireland’s River Basin Management Plan and targeted action at local water catchment level is key to improving water quality.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today published the Water Quality Indicators Report 2019 which provides an assessment on Ireland’s surface water and groundwater quality.

The main threat to water quality is the presence of too much nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which come primarily from agriculture and waste water. Over one third of rivers, and a quarter of lakes are failing to meet their environmental quality standards for nutrients. Over one fifth of our groundwater, estuarine and coastal water bodies have high nitrogen concentrations.

Just over half of rivers and lakes are in high or good biological quality.  The rivers surveyed in 2019 have shown more improvements than declines overall, which is welcome, however further action is needed to return waters to a satisfactory condition.

Commenting on the assessment, EPA Director Dr Micheál Lehane said:

“Clean, healthy water is essential for our economy, our aquatic wildlife and for our health and well-being. However, this assessment shows that our water environment remains under considerable pressure from human activities. Of most concern is the continued upward trend of nitrate concentrations.  The problem is particularly evident in the south and southeast of the country where the main source is agriculture.
We need urgent and effective action to ensure that the decline in water quality is halted and to restore those water bodies that have declined in quality.”

Mary Gurrie, Programme Manager, continued:

“Elevated nutrient concentrations are contributing to pollution in our freshwaters and estuaries and causing difficulties with drinking water standards in some areas. Urgent action is now needed to reduce nutrient inputs from agriculture.  Measures need to be targeted at the critical source areas where nitrogen and phosphate problems occur.  There is a lot of good work happening at a local level to improve water quality and this needs to be scaled up to deliver the improvements needed.

The River Basin Management Plan, the new Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plan and the full implementation of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy offer significant opportunities to achieve improvements in water quality, while delivering multiple benefits for the environment including for climate, air quality and biodiversity.”

The report  is available on the EPA website

and the accompanying data used in the water quality assessments are available on . An infographic is also available.

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 which is 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 wastewater 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 wastewater.

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. : A collaborative EPA, LAWPRO and Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government website that is used to share data, information and resources on water in Ireland. It includes water quality assessments undertaken by the EPA for the Water Framework Directive.

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