Water is a precious resource, and managing our water so it can meet our current and future needs and also continue to support the ecosystems that depend on it, is vital for Ireland’s future.  Sewage and diffuse agricultural sources continue to be the main threat to the quality of Ireland’s waters. Measures to improve water quality are being implemented in order to achieve the targets of the Water Framework Directive (WFD). This piece of European Union (EU) legislation has become a major driver for achieving sustainable management of water in Ireland and across the EU.

Current Trends

Water Framework Directive (WFD)

Under the European Union (EU) WFD, all inland and coastal waters must reach ‘Good’ ecological status. ‘Good ecological status’ means achieving satisfactory quality water, suitable for local  communities' drinking, bathing, agricultural, industrial, and recreational needs, while maintaining ecosystems that can support all the species of plants, birds, fish and animals that live in these aquatic habitats. The five water categories: rivers, lakes, groundwater, as well as transitional and coastal waters, all come under the Water Framework Directive.


Groundwater is important as a source of drinking water in Ireland, providing approximately 25 per cent of drinking water nationally.  In the period up to 2012, 1.5 per cent of groundwater bodies in Ireland were classified as being at poor chemical status based on the best information available. This was an improvement from 13.6 per cent of the groundwater bodies in Ireland classified as being at poor chemical status in the first cycle of WFD river basin management planning. 

Elevated nitrate concentrations in groundwater is an issue, particularly in the south and south-east regions of the country.  It may contribute to eutrophication of surface waters and affect drinking waters. 
The Water Quality in Ireland Report (2010-2012) which was published in June 2015, contains the most recent data and information on water quality in Ireland.


Under the Water Framework Monitoring Programme, river water quality and trends are regularly assessed with respect to ecological criteria (e.g. plants, fish, and insects), and to physicochemical water quality standards (e.g. Phosphorus and Nitrates).  During the 2010-2012 period, biological assessments were made at over 2,800 sites and assessment of the supporting physico-chemical parameters, including nitrates, phosphates, BOD and ammonia, was undertaken at over 1,280 river sites. 

In this period, 53 per cent (858) of monitored river water bodies were classified as being at high or good ecological status, with 47 per cent (766) classified at less than good ecological status.  Analysis of 2013 data for orthophosphate in rivers shows an encouraging picture with almost three quarters of all rivers meeting the annual averaged Environmental Quality Standard for Good status of 0.035 mg/l P.  In the case of Nitrates, there is evidence in many areas of declining river concentrations especially in the intensive agriculture areas of the Midlands and South-east regions. 

High Ecological Quality River Sites

High-status waters such as rivers with healthy populations of freshwater pearl mussel require very high standards of protection.  However, the number of such high-status waters has declined significantly in recent decades falling to approximately 14 per cent in 2007-09.    A welcome increase in the numbers of high status sites (18.3 per cent) in the latest reported survey 2010-2012, will hopefully continue.  However, the number of sites assigned Q5 high status reference condition continues to decline from 38 sites in the period 2007-2009 to 27 sites in the period 2010-2012.


There are over 12,000 lakes in Ireland, which are primarily located along the western seaboard and in the centre of Ireland.  Most of our lakes are of good overall ecological quality, but nutrient loading pressures have become more noticeable recently, and increased research and monitoring of lakes has been undertaken in response. 

Up to 2012 under the Water Framework Monitoring Programme, 213 lakes were being examined for a broader range of biological and chemical parameters, with 43 per cent of the monitored lakes achieving the high or good status targets of the WFD.  The changes in status (5 per cent reduction) are generally a result of changes in phosphorus concentrations, but other factors such as abstraction pressures, habitat limitations, and the presence of alien species, may also be impacting on status, and require further investigation.

Transitional and Coastal Waters

Both transitional and coastal waters are exposed to a wide range of human pressures such as discharges from industrial and municipal waste water treatment plants, inputs from diffuse agricultural sources, harbour and port activities, and discharges from marine vessels.  A total of 193 transitional water bodies were assessed (2010 - 2012), with over one-third (36 per cent) found to be at good or high ecological status, while just under a half (48 per cent) at moderate or worse ecological status.  The remaining water bodies (16 per cent) were unassigned due to insufficient information.

In addition, a total of 101 coastal water bodies, were assessed (2010 - 2012), and 93.6 per cent or 12,470 km2 of coastal waters are at high or good ecological status.  The PARCOM Source Apportionment (PSA) programme estimates the potential loading from various sources, such as agriculture, urban wastewater treatment, and industry, etc. For nitrogen, the largest source is agriculture (87.5 per cent), followed by urban wastewater treatment (4.9 per cent), while for phosphorus the largest source is agriculture (49.2 per cent), followed by urban wastewater treatment (28.7 per cent).


Eutrophication, which is caused by nutrient enrichment, remains the most significant issue for surface waters.  The two most important suspected causes of pollution in rivers are agriculture and municipal sources, accounting for 53 and 34 per cent of cases respectively. Other sources are mainly diffuse and include activities such as forestry and peat harvesting. 

Urban Waste Water Discharges

Municipal waste water discharge is one of the main sources of pollution in Irish rivers and the control of these discharges is critical in the protection of water bodies.  The main effects of pollution from municipal sources are nutrient enrichment and, to a lesser extent, excessive siltation.  These two effects can lead to decreased biodiversity in our rivers, and excessive weed and algal growth.

Agricultural and Food Harvest 2020 

Diffuse discharges - mainly from agriculture, are more difficult to address than point sources.  Nutrient enrichment is the most widespread threat to water quality in Ireland.  Agricultural activities associated with water pollution include land spreading of artificial fertilisers and animal manures in unsuitable climatic and ground conditions, silage effluent discharges, farmyard runoff, watering animals and poorly managed ring feeders.

The good news is that nutrient inputs to rivers particularly from the agriculture sector, have seen 18.7 and 37.7 per cent reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus sources respectively, in the period from 2010-2012.  However, the targets set by Food Harvest 2020 will pose some significant challenges in meeting the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.  It is predicted that there will be a 33 per cent increase in primary output across the country, based on 2007–2009 averages.

Whats Being Done

Water Framework Directive (WFD)

The seven River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) submitted to the EU in 2010 as part of the 1st RBMP cycle included programmes of measures for the restoration or maintenance of the status of all water bodies by 2017, although this may be been extended to 2019.  The 2nd RBMP cycle will focus on the integrated catchment management (ICM) approach as the means to achieve effective water and catchment management.  ICM will involve a number of steps. 

  • Gathering the best available information to understand the catchment - where the water comes from, and what activities in the catchment may be causing pollution
  • Looking at all the uses of water - drinking, agricultural, industrial and recreational, and also the vital ecosystems that depend on water to survive
  • Engaging local communities and involving them in decision making and management of their catchment
  • Adopting appropriate measures to ensure that activities that represent a significant threat to water resources are effectively managed

Characterisation Approach

Nationally, we are required to deliver a River Basin Management Plan in 2017. To do this, we must first characterise our water bodies. There are three tiers in the characterisation process:

  • Tier 1 is a risk assessment of the status of water bodies, trends based on monitoring data and existing measures. This tier identifies water bodies ‘At Risk’ of not achieving good status 
  • Tier 2 allows the ‘At Risk’ water bodies to be further investigated. This tier focuses on small catchments to determine which pollution sources have the greatest impact on water bodies
  • Tier 3 is targeted at the significant pressures and critical source areas and involves undertaking catchment walks and monitoring.

Tackling Point Source and Diffuse Pollution

For point sources, while nine large urban areas in 2013 did not meet the Urban Wastewater Directive requirements to provide secondary treatment, 71 per cent of the 441 plants with secondary treatment achieved the minimum standard, which is up 17 per cent since 2009.

The implementation and enforcement of the Nitrates Action Plan under the EU Nitrates Directive is the most important measure to address diffuse agricultural pollution of freshwaters. This includes a code of Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) which is mandatory for all farms. While there have been some reduction in agricultural pollution in recent years, a significant portion of farms nationally may be non-compliant with the nitrates regulations. 

Industrial and Septic tank emissions

Industrial discharges are controlled and licensed by local authorities under the Water Pollution Act.  For larger industrial facilities many of these are licensed by the EPA under the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED).  These licences or authorisations set emission limits on effluent discharges to water bodies or to the sewer network. 

If septic tanks are poorly sited and/or not properly maintained, these systems can pollute groundwater, surface water and drinking water supplies and impact on human health. The EPA has published a revised code of practice for wastewater treatment and disposal systems in un-sewered areas (EPA, 2010). The Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012 provides for the establishment of a registration system for domestic on-site waste water treatment plants, and requires the EPA to put in place a national inspection plan in conjunction with the local authorities. 


The general decrease in nitrogen and phosphorus levels observed in groundwater, rivers and marine waters, and the associated reduction in eutrophication impacts, are welcome developments. However, the rate of improvement has been slow and the improvements are relatively modest. The progress is most likely due to better farming practices and improvements in the provision and management of wastewater infrastructure.

Future risks which may threaten the modest improvements seen in recent years include the planned expansion in the agricultural sector under Food Harvest 2020, which may see increased applications of nutrients, as well as increased nutrient loadings to waters from municipal wastewater discharges due to population growth and increased numbers of connections from unsewered populations and industries to municipal wastewater treatment plants.

The future challenge will be to target management measures in such a way that will preventany increases in nutrient levels in water, and which will accelerate further reductions to levels that will not cause eutrophication impacts. This can be most effectively done by taking an integrated catchment management-based approach, and understanding the connectivity between groundwater, rivers, lakes, transitional and coastal waters, as well as the landscape within the catchment area.

Water Framework Directive (WFD)

As a result of the WFD, ecological monitoring has required the development of assessment tools for assessing all biological elements in surface waters where relevant. These elements include phytoplankton, macrophytes and phytobenthos, and fish fauna etc. These elements often respond differently to a range of environmental pressures (e.g. organic pollution, chemical pollution, and water abstraction), some being more sensitive to certain pressures than others.  

While a number of these elements have been used as indicators of environmental health for a long period of time, over 10 new ecological monitoring tools have had to be developed to date.  Ecological monitoring tools also need to be benchmarked against other similar tools used across Europe through the formal inter-calibration process. This means that far more comprehensive environmental assessments are now being carried out than in the past. There are still a number of tools which are under development (e.g. assessment tools for macrophytes and phytobenthos in rivers) but these will be applied once finalised.

In a move towards more integrated assessment, a new governance framework has been put in place. The framework is intended to provide far better clarity on who is responsible for undertaking the tasks involved in preparing and leading the implementation of river basin management plans. Collaboration and co-ordination of activities between government departments and state agencies will be critical to ensuring that the new governance arrangements are effective and ultimately support the achievement of water quality improvements.