Ireland’s surface waters and groundwater resources are an important natural asset. Clean, healthy water is essential for our economy, our aquatic wildlife and for our health and well-being. Our surface water resource is comprised of 84,800 km of mapped river channel, 12,000 lakes, hundreds of estuaries and over 14,000 km2 of coastal waters.
This important natural resource is under threat from a range of human activities that cause water pollution and damage the physical integrity of water bodies and habitats.
The aim of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) is to maintain high and good status waters where they exist and prevent deterioration of status in all waters. This will be achieved by identifying key threats to water quality on a catchment basis and developing new evidence-based measures for mitigation of threats supported by national and local level schemes and initiatives.
While the percentage of groundwater bodies and coastal water bodies in satisfactory quality is well above the European average, our rivers, lakes and estuaries are not doing as well. Only 53% of rivers, 50.5% of lakes and 38% of estuaries are in satisfactory ecological health. Furthermore, while there have been some improvements, overall surface water quality has declined by 4.4% since 2015 and most of this decline is driven by the deterioration in river water quality. The pressures causing this level of deterioration need to be addressed. This can be done by implementing the measures identified in Ireland’s national river basin management plan and to use existing knowledge to ensure that the right measure is being applied in the right place.
Just over half (53%) of the 2,355 river water bodies assessed nationally are in satisfactory ecological health being in either good or high status. The remaining 47% are in moderate, poor or bad ecological status. The decline in surface water quality is mostly driven by the decline in river water quality which has declined by 5.5%. This decline is marked by a drop in the number of high status river waters, which have declined by a third since 2009 and an increase in the number of poor status waters. The number of the most seriously polluted (bad status) river water bodies has also increased after many years of improvements.
There has also been a substantial loss in the number of highest quality biological sites (i.e. Q 5). These sites are important reservoirs of aquatic biodiversity and provide a home to species most sensitive to pollution. In the most recent monitoring period (2016-2018) only 20 sites were classified as highest quality (0.7% of sites) compared with 575 between 1987 and 1990 and 82 between 2001 and 2003. This is an all-time low. This is an area where substantial effort is required to protect the few remaining highest quality rivers and where feasible return impacted ones back to their previous condition.
Of the 215 lakes and 9 reservoirs assessed under the Water Framework Directive, half (50.5%) are in good or better ecological health. This represents an improvement in lake status since the last assessment but overall the picture for lakes is similar to what it was in the baseline period 2007-2009. Although, trend analysis over the period 2013-2018 has indicated an increase in the concentration of total phosphorus, a key nutrient in lake ecology, in over a quarter of lakes analysed. Higher nutrient concentrations can increase the likelihood of algal blooms which can damage lake ecology.
In Ireland, 92% of groundwater bodies met their good chemical and good quantitative status objectives, accounting for 98% of the country by area. 38 groundwater bodies (7.4%) were at poor chemical status and two groundwater bodies (0.4%) failed to meet the quantitative status objective. The south and south-east regions of the country have the highest proportion of monitoring locations with elevated nitrate concentrations and these regions have also seen the greatest increase in nitrate concentrations since 2013.
Transitional (Estuarine) and Coastal Waters
Results from a six-year ecological status assessment from 2013-2018 indicate little change in the quality of our transitional (estuarine) and coastal waters. Transitional waters, the collective term for estuaries and lagoons, have the poorest water quality, with only 38% of water bodies in good or better ecological health. Phosphorus and nitrogen inputs via rivers to estuarine waters have increased by 31% and 16%, respectively, since 2014, indicating an increase in pressures coming from catchment-wide sources.
For coastal waters, the number of water bodies in good or better ecological health is much higher at 80%, making them some of the best quality coastal waters in Europe. This tends to reflect their more open exposed nature and greater capacity to absorb nutrients when compared to more sheltered transitional waters. The latest details on water quality in Ireland, including maps showing water quality to the end of 2018, is available on the “Catchments.ie – Water, from source to sea” website (www.catchments.ie).
Ireland's Marine Environment
Ireland’s marine environment is one of the largest in the European Union (EU) and is nearly 10 times its land area. The temperate waters that surround Ireland are highly productive and provide a rich mosaic of marine life, including hundreds of species of invertebrates and fish, 24 species of whales and dolphins, breeding colonies of both the common and grey seal and some of the largest breeding populations of seabirds in Western Europe. The assessment of this wider marine areas is covered under the EU Marine Strategy framework Directive
Ireland’s location in the Atlantic Ocean on the edge of the European continent has meant that its marine environment has remained relatively unpolluted. In recent years, however, the level of environmental stress, from both internal and external sources, has increased. Coastal development, particularly during the 1990s, has resulted in an increase in the range and magnitude of pressures that have the potential to impact negatively on the quality of Ireland’s tidal waters.
A number of human activities are responsible for preventing water bodies achieving their environmental objectives. The most common ones in Ireland are agriculture, activities that result in physical changes being made to water bodies (e.g. flood defences, drainage works, etc.), discharges from waste water treatment plants and forestry.
Significant agricultural pressures include runoff of nutrients and sediment from agricultural lands and farmyards, and the contamination of surface waters with pesticides. Nutrients and other substances discharged from waste water treatment plants can lead to organic and nutrient enrichment with consequent impacts on dissolved oxygen levels and biological communities. Poorly treated sewage can also pose a public health risk by potentially contaminating the source of drinking water supplies with harmful bacteria and viruses. While the most common water quality problems arising from forestry in Ireland relate to the release of sediment and nutrients to the aquatic environment and impacts from acidification. Forestry may also give rise to modified stream flow regimes caused by associated land drainage.
One of the main problems damaging the quality of surface waters is nutrient pollution caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. A third of rivers and lakes and a quarter of estuaries have too much nutrient in them and there is also evidence that nutrient concentrations in rivers and nutrient inputs to the marine environment are increasing. At least a quarter of river sites have increasing nutrient concentrations while nitrogen and phosphorus loads from the land to the sea have increased by 16% and 31%, respectively. These nutrients cause excessive plant and algal growth in our rivers and increase the likelihood of harmful algal blooms in our lakes and estuarine waters.
Loss of nutrients from agriculture have increased in recent years as a result of the ongoing expansion of the agriculture sector under Food Harvest 2020 and its successor Food Wise 2025. In areas with freely draining soil, nitrate losses are closely correlated with farm intensity; the higher the application of nitrogen, the higher the nitrate concentrations in waters. Since 2013, nitrogen emissions have increased as both cattle numbers and fertilizer use have increased. Agricultural land can also be an important source of phosphorus particularly from poorly draining soils. Diffuse phosphorus losses from agriculture are difficult to tackle as the sources do not occur uniformly in the landscape, but from ‘hot spots’ or critical source areas.
Putting measures in place to address these additional nutrient inputs will be critical to reverse the current downward trend in water quality.
Urban Waste Water
Urban waste water is one of the most common pollution pressures. Over half (56%) of the combined sewage loading that arises in large urban areas in Ireland is discharged from plants that are not meeting the required European standard. In mid-2020, raw sewage from the equivalent of 78,000 people in 35 towns and villages is still released into the environment every day, with the majority discharged directly into estuaries and coastal areas. Thirty three of these areas are not scheduled to receive treatment until after 2021. Furthermore, improvements have yet to be identified and scheduled at 23 areas where waste water is the sole significant pressure on water bodies at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives. Continued investment in infrastructure is essential to provide the waste water treatment necessary to protect receiving waters and meet obligations under EPA authorisations and European Directives.
Ireland's Marine Environment
Irelands coastal and marine waters are clean and reasonably healthy but not as biologically diverse or productive as they could be. Our marine and coastal areas are impacted by several human-induced pressures including fishing, eutrophication, climate change and litter. These issues put pressure on our fragile marine systems.
Recent Water Framework Directive assessments (2013-2018) show that 80% of our coastal water bodies and 38% of our transitional water bodies are in high or good ecological status. Irelands offshore marine waters show no evidence of nutrient pollution.
Intensive fishing has threatened the stocks of many commercial fish and shellfish species. A transition to sustainable fisheries, and strict adherence to catch limits is imperative to ensuring not only the continued availability of this resource, but also the health of the associated food webs. In addition, Ireland's international commitment under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to designate 10% of its marine area as marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2020 has not been met. Designation of marine protected areas has been recognised as a key mechanism to halt the loss of marine biodiversity and protect marine ecosystems.
Climate induced changes in marine temperature and pH have been recorded in Irish marine waters. Sea level rise has been recorded around Ireland’s coasts and coupled with increased storm frequency, poses a serious risk to Ireland’s coastal cities. Continuous monitoring, assessment and modelling are essential to assist in the planning of proper adaptation to sea level rise.
Microplastics can be found throughout our marine waters. Marine life can be physically impacted through entanglement and ingestion of plastics and litter. Ingestion may also provide a pathway for the transport of harmful chemicals into marine food webs.
Ireland needs to ensure the proper knowledge base and legislative framework is in place to protect our marine ecosystems as well as the services they provide.
Whats Being Done
River Catchment Planning
Ireland’s second-cycle River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 was published in April 2018. The Plan represents an integrated national approach to river basin planning based on a new three-tier governance structure and the formation of a single national River Basin District.
Some of the key measures set out in the Plan include:
- Establishment of the Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO) to carry out localised catchment assessments and promote the implementation of mitigation measures to improve water quality at a local level.
- Setting up the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP). ASSAP will provide water quality advice to the farming community.
- Establishment of the Blue Dot Catchments Programme to ensure the protection of our remaining high status waters.
- Investment by Irish Water of €1.7 billion in wastewater projects, programmes and asset maintenance.
Implementing the Integrated Catchment-Management approach
Underpinning the new water governance arrangements for managing water is the integrated catchment management approach. It approaches sustainable resource management from a catchment perspective, in contrast to a piecemeal approach that artificially separates land management from water management. It is being led by the Local Authorities Water Programme (LAWPRO) who are undertaking local catchment assessments in areas which have been prioritised for action in the RBMP. Where an action to improve water quality is identified, LAWPRO refer it to the relevant implementing body for follow up. In total, 190 Priority Areas for Action (PAAs) have been identified for targeted action.
The objective set out in the RBMP is to deliver water quality improvements in 726 water bodies located within the 190 Areas for Action, and for 152 of these to have improved sufficiently so they achieve good or high ecological status. The RBMP envisages that water bodies outside Areas for Action will benefit from existing and newly introduced measures such as the adoption of good agricultural practices and the provision of new and improved municipal waste water treatment infrastructure.
Agriculture measures to improve water quality
Agriculture as a landuse covers 67.6% of the land area of Ireland and is the most common significant pressure in water bodies that are failing to meet their environmental objectives.
Ireland's Nitrates Action Programme is designed to prevent pollution of surface waters and groundwater from agricultural sources and to protect and improve water quality. The measures within the Programme, which relate to livestock stocking densities, periods when land spreading of livestock manure is prohibited and set levels for the storage of livestock manure, are given legal effect by the Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters Regulations.
When LAWPRO identify a water quality issue related to agriculture they notify ASSAP who in turn work with local farmers to identify where improvements in water quality can be made. This can involve a whole farm assessment which focuses on the significant issue identified by LAWPRO. As such, LAWPRO and ASSAP teams are facilitating a far more targeted approach in terms of delivering the right measure in the right place to improve water quality.
Agri-environment schemes such as GLAS and other initiatives such as the Dairy Sustainability Initiative will also help to reduce the loss of nutrients by increasing knowledge exchange around field-based nutrient management and the management of farmyard point sources. Finally, structural changes to the Common Agricultural Policy and its greater emphasis on environmental sustainability is likely to lead to more sustainable farming practices.
Measures to address discharges from urban waste water treatment plants
The objective of waste water treatment is to collect the waste water generated within our communities, remove the polluting material, and then release the treated water safely back into the environment. Without such treatment, the waste water we produce would pollute our waters and create a health risk. Irish Water is the national water utility responsible for the collection, treatment and discharge of urban waste water.
Over the period 2017–2021, Irish Water committed to invest approximately €1.7 billion in wastewater projects, programmes and asset maintenance. This was to include investment in 255 wastewater treatment projects (to be completed by the year 2025), improvements in collection systems in 41 urban areas, and further investment and upgrades to existing plants.
As of mid-2020, Irish Water had yet to identify and schedule improvements required to address 23 urban areas where waste water is the sole significant pressure. Repeated delays in completing essential work to eliminate discharges of raw sewage mean that raw sewage will continue to be released into the environment from 33 towns and villages after 2021.
Irish Water must address the delays in providing infrastructure to eliminate the discharge of raw sewage. The Utility must also complete the improvements needed to ensure waste water does not prevent receiving waters from meeting their environmental objectives.
EPA Research Programme
Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in Water under its Water Pillar. The EPA Research Programme has a strong focus on policy and is driven by national regulations and European directives. A sustained Water Research Programme is an essential component of Ireland’s role in protecting its water resources and meeting its requirements under water-related EU directives, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and national polices. The EPA Research Water Pillar deals with groundwater, surface water, transitional and coastal water, as well as wastewater, drinking, bathing and shellfish waters. The EPA Research Water Pillar is structured into five thematic areas of research, as follows:
Theme 1: Safe Water;
Theme 2: Ecosystem Services and Sustainability;
Theme 3: Innovative Water Technologies;
Theme 4: Understanding, Managing and Conserving our Water Resources;
Theme 5: Emerging and Cross-cutting Issues
Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.
Since 2014, in this area:
- 112 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €19.2m) (as of November 2020). For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database
- 73 EPA Research Reports have been published (as of November 2020).
The EPA is a member of the Water Joint Programming Initiative (Member States-driven initiative which aims to enhance collaboration between national research programmes in Europe to address key societal challenges in a more efficient and effective manner). It is dedicated to tackling the ambitious challenge of achieving sustainable water systems for a sustainable economy in Europe and abroad. This will be realised through a multi-disciplinary approach, which includes economic, ecological, societal and technological considerations.
Progress with meeting environmental objectives of the Water Framework Directive
While some water bodies have improved in status in recent years overall there has been a 4.4% net decline in surface water quality. This decline is being seen most clearly in our river water bodies which have declined by 5.5% since 2015. If this rate of decline continues it is unlikely that the modest targets set in Ireland’s second-cycle RBMP 2018-2021 will be met.
Nearly 1,500 water bodies have been identified as being at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives. It is likely that the majority of these will fail to meet their objectives unless measures required to address water quality issues can be targeted to where they are needed.
On a more positive note, while overall water quality deteriorated nationally there was an overall net improvement in the 190 Areas for Action prioritised in the RBMP. This suggests that when action is taken to improve water quality it delivers results. The current Plan runs to 2021 so there may be further improvements over this period.
The challenge now must be to learn from the successes and apply them nationally to reverse the negative trends we are seeing in water quality. We must also ensure that the knowledge gathered in monitoring programmes and water-related research projects is used more widely to provide information and solutions to water quality problems and to inform policy development in this area.
Agricultural Policy and Water Protection
The national farm inspection regime is currently focussed on the farmyard. However, a significant proportion of pollution can arise from agricultural land. The new risk based approach to identifying potential Critical Source Areas (CSA) of diffuse pollution, will greatly assist LAWPRO and ASSAP in focusing management measures where they will be most effective.
The National Action Programme under the Nitrates Directive will provide an opportunity to evaluate the need to amend existing farm management measures under the programme. Measures will be required to address the issues identified during farm inspections such as inadequate management of animal manures, contamination of waters by run-off from farmyards and structural defects in manure storage facilities.
Local Community Initiatives
To deliver significant improvements in the condition of waters it will be important to generate and harness bottom-up community involvement and ownership of the environmental issues, for example through the formation of River Trusts. There are now eight Rivers Trust Charities stretching from Donegal to Wexford (Slaney Rivers Trust, Nore Suir Rivers Trust, Blackwater Rivers Trust, Waterville Lakes and Rivers Trust, Maigue Rivers Trust, Moy Rivers Trust, Erne Rivers Trust and Inishowen Rivers Trust). Funds available from the Community Water Fund and from national and European research projects (LEADER and LIFE projects) are providing opportunities for local communities and farmers to get involved in local water quality catchment based projects. Local community initiatives, with the support of the LAWPRO, have the potential to tackle threats to water protection and restoration more effectively by examining the risks and developing tailored solutions at a local level.
Citizen science also provides an opportunity for local communities to get involved in science projects that tell us about the quality of the aquatic environment. The Dragonfly Ireland 2019-2024 project is seeking volunteers to record sightings of dragonflies and damselflies while the Explore Your Shore project is looking for volunteers to identify the different types of animals and plants found in seashore rockpools.
Urban Waste Water
Significant investment is needed to upgrade deficient waste water treatment systems. In 2020 the EPA identified 113 urban areas where treatment must improve as a priority to address the following key issues (1) comply with EU collection and treatment standards; (2) eliminate discharges of raw sewage; (3) improve treatment where waste water is the sole significant pressure on water bodies at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives (4) prevent waste water from adversely affecting bathing waters; (5) protect the habitats of endangered freshwater pearl mussels. Irish Water must direct resources at resolving these issues, so that improvements are prioritised where they are most needed to protect human health and the environment.
Key developments for the protection of marine waters include the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Marine Spatial Planning Directive and the adoption of measures stemming from the review of the Common Fisheries Policy. Further progress will also need to be made in formally designating a coherent and ecologically representative network of marine protected areas.
The MSFD aims to achieve good ecological status (GES) of the EU’s marine waters by 2020 and to protect the resources on which marine-related economic and social activities depend. Each Member State is required to develop a strategy for its marine waters.
As part of the Marine Spatial Planning Directive and Ireland’s National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), a Marine Spatial Plan has been produced that will provide guidance for future developments affecting the marine environment. The framework will provide guidance on the sustainable planning and management of marine resources, balancing ecological, economic and social objectives in relation to aspects such as the environment, biodiversity, commercial fisheries and renewable energy.
Under the Common Fisheries Policy a number of historical and recent measures have been developed to ensure that fishing, and aquaculture, are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. Since 2014 CFP reform has led to the phased introduction of landing obligations for species subject to catch limits. This aims to eliminate the practice of discarding unwanted catches. It is expected that these obligations, together with changes in fishing gear and fishing methods, could lead to an improvement in fish stocks and a more sustainable fishing industry. Bottom trawling on deep sea reef habitats designated under the EU Habitats Directive has been banned, while large trawlers are banned from waters inside 6 nautical miles of the Irish coast from 2020.
Impacts of Climate Change on the Environment
With regard to inland water ecosystems, the most obvious and direct impacts predicted include changes in river flows. Increases in rainfall are expected to result in higher flow rates in winter and spring, of the order of 20% in winter by the mid to late twenty-first century, while reductions in the summer and autumn months of over 40% are likely in many catchments. In addition, the intensity of rainfall episodes is expected to increase, giving the land less time to soak up and cope with high volumes of water. Flood events are likely to become more frequent with extreme flood events, currently expected once in every 50 years, likely to occur once every 10 years by the second half of this century.
Flood events are likely to be exacerbated by rising sea levels. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea level is predicted to rise by between 0.43 metres and 0.84 metres by the end of the century, based on emission scenarios compatible with achieving the long-term temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement. Incidents of coastal erosion and flooding from increased storm activity will be magnified by sea level rise posing a serious risk to Ireland’s coastal areas and major coastal cities.
Droughts are not uncommon events in Ireland. Longer-term drought patterns indicate Ireland has had several drought rich periods since 1765. While the recent 2018 drought was intense it was considerably more short-lived than previously identified historical droughts. The EPA’s assessment of the 2018 drought in Ireland indicated that the impact on river flows nationally wasn’t as prolonged or severe as 1975-76, or as severe as 1995 in the midlands and west of the country. The 2018 drought should not be viewed as a ‘worst case scenario’ from a groundwater perspective and was not representative of either a prolonged severe, or an inter-annual drought. Both historical patterns of climate variability and projections of future climate change (i.e. decreases in summer precipitation and higher temperatures) suggest that there will be significant risk of more frequent and severe droughts.
Higher air temperatures will also bring higher water temperatures. Warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen, critical to the survival of aquatic organisms. Higher water temperature, reduced oxygen concentration and decreased water volume, during a drought, may act together to put further pressure on aquatic ecosystems already suffering the effects of water pollution. It follows therefore that waters which are clean and relatively free of pollution will be more resilient to the additional pressures brought by climate change. The ecological health of our inland surface waters will ultimately determine the ability of these waters to cope with the effects of climate change.