Ireland has abundant surface water resources, with over 70,000 km of river channel, 12,000 lakes, 850 km2 of estuaries and 13,000 km2 of coastal waters. Groundwater is also abundant, and it provides over 20% of water supplies nationally.

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.

Current Trends

The quality of Irish groundwater and surface waters is among the best in Europe. However, there are many impacts that need to be addressed to bring all waters up to a satisfactory level and to protect waters already in good condition. Ireland is fortunate to have such good-quality waters, and our future wealth and prosperity is very dependent on us maintaining and strengthening this position. With regard to biodiversity, species considered to be most under threat are those linked to wetlands and those that are sensitive to water pollution.


Under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) one of the key elements for rivers is the diversity and number of pollution tolerant macroinvertebrate fauna present, which are monitored and assessed in Ireland using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Q value method. The Water Quality in Ireland reports that are produced every three years have shown that despite minor variations in each monitoring period, overall levels of pollution remain relatively constant since the beginning of the 1990s. Some improvements have been made with the length of seriously polluted channel being reduced to just over 6km in the 2013 to 2015, period compared with 17km between 2010 and 2012 and 53km between 2007 and 2009.

While overall the length of unpolluted river channel has remained relatively constant there has been a substantial loss in the number of sites where the highest quality river sites are found (i.e. Q value of 5). In the most recent monitoring period (2013-2015) only 21 sites were classified as the highest quality rivers (0.7% of sites) compared with 575 between 1987 and 1990 and 82 between 2001 and 2003. This is an area where substantial effort is required to protect the few remaining highest quality rivers and return impacted ones, where feasible, back to their earlier extremely high quality.


Under the Water Framework Monitoring Programme, 216 lakes are being examined for a broader range of biological and chemical parameters. Preliminary results for 2013-2015 water status assessment show 54% of monitored lakes are impacted (moderate or worse ecological status). This represents an increase of 3% in the moderate or worse category for lakes compared with the baseline of 2007‑2009.


In Ireland, 1% of groundwater body area is at poor chemical status which represents 8.6% of all groundwater bodies.

Transitional (Estuarine) and Coastal Waters

Results from a six year ecological status assessment from 2010 - 2015 indicate little change in the quality of our transitional (estuarine) and coastal waters. For coastal waters, the number of water bodies at High or Good status has increased from 69% in 2012 to 79% in 2015 due to the recovery of certain water bodies from algal bloom impacts. In terms of surface area assessed there has been no change with 86% of coastal water area at high or good status. In transitional waters, 69% of water bodies remain at moderate or worse status.

The latest details on water quality in Ireland, including maps showing water quality to the end of 2015, is now available on the new “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.

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 and industrialisation, 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.



Eutrophication, which is caused by nutrient enrichment, remains the most significant issue for surface waters.  Excessive loads of nitrogen and phosphorus can arise from a number of sources. The two most important suspected causes of pollution in rivers are agriculture and municipal sources, accounting for 53% and 34% of cases respectively. 

Agriculture and Food Wise 2025

Diffuse discharges - mainly from agriculture, are more difficult to address than point sources. The good news is that nutrient inputs to rivers particularly from the agriculture sector, have seen 18.7% and 37.7% reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus sources respectively, in the period from 2010-2012. 

However, the ongoing and planned expansion in the agricultural sector under Food Harvest 2020 and its successor, Food Wise 2025 may threaten improvements in water quality, if not adequately managed. Under the expansion plans, increased application of nitrogen and phosphorus to agricultural land is likely to happen in areas of the country where the concentrations of these nutrients in water are already elevated. The challenge is to target management measures to prevent any increases in nitrate and phosphorus concentrations in waters. 

Urban Waste Water

Urban waste water is one of the most common pollution pressures.  The pollution pressure can arise from discharges of inadequately treated sewage, as well as leaks, spills or overflows from the network of pipes and pumps used to collect waste water from its source and convey it to a treatment plant.  Urban waste water from 57 urban areas is the sole significant threat to some of the water bodies in Ireland that are at risk of not meeting environmental objectives required by the Water Framework Directive. In 2018, the treatment of urban waste water at 21 large urban areas did not meet European Union standards.  In mid-2019 raw sewage from 36 towns and villages still flowed into the environment every day.  Waste water discharges contributed to poor water quality at three of Ireland's 145 identified bathing waters in 2018.  Continued investment in infrastructure and increased capital expenditure are 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

Pressures have also come from the intensification of agriculture and commercial fishing. The application of inorganic fertilisers and changing farming practices have caused nutrient enrichment of inshore surface waters, and, in the fishing sector, the use of new technologies and larger modern trawlers has allowed the capture of unsustainable quantities of fish. The continued release of untreated sewage into the marine environment from several large towns is a major cause of concern. In addition, the impacts of climate change pose a significant and not yet fully understood threat to this environment.

While marine litter can have a very obvious impact on the aesthetic quality of coastal amenities, the impact on marine life can be far more serious and insidious. It is estimated that plastic litter kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles worldwide every year, including 30,000 seals, and up to one million seabirds, through either entanglement or ingestion. Litter on the Irish coast comes from a variety of sources, both land and sea. Tackling marine litter requires an integrated response, including solutions governing waste management practices.

The most obvious pressure on the environment from fishing is the harvesting of target species and the unintentional catching of non-target fish species and other species such as cetaceans, seals, seabirds and benthic organisms. The main issues in relation to aquaculture are the effects of discharges of uneaten fish-food material and fish waste from fish farms, the introduction and spread of disease and parasites and the use of chemotherapeutics and anti-fouling agents. 

Whats Being Done

River Catchment Planning

For the development of the second cycle of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs), there is now a single national approach based on a new three-tier governance structure, as well as the merging of the River Basin Districts through legislation to form one national River Basin District. A single administrative area is being established for the purpose of co-ordinating water management with authorities in Northern Ireland along border areas. A Local Authority Water & Community Office (LAWCO) has now been established operating from three regional locations. Key to delivery is a focus on local level action centred on catchments.

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. Other supporting initiatives include the establishment of a National Implementation Group, a Water Policy Advisory Committee and a Catchment Management Network to promote information sharing and collaboration across all organisational bodies.

Tackling Diffuse Pollution

Diffuse pollution occurs when potentially polluting substances leach into surface waters and groundwater as a result of rainfall, soil infiltration and surface runoff. Diffuse pollution includes the use of fertiliser in agriculture and forestry, and pesticides from a wide range of land uses.

In 2012, 53% of suspected cases of pollution in rivers were attributed to agriculture. Around 3500 farm inspections per year have been carried out under the good agricultural practices regulations from 2007 to 2014. Among farms selected for inspection based on risk, over 30% each year were found to have breached these regulations. Of the breaches found in 2014, 52% were due to the poor management of livestock manures and other organic fertilisers, while 16% were due to manure storage structural defects. There is clearly room for improvement in the management of manures and organic fertilisers, while breaches for poor management of clean waters (18%) can be solved by reasonably straightforward changes in the management of farmyards.

Three schemes or initiatives with the potential to contribute to the protection and enhancement of water quality are the new national agri-environmental scheme, GLAS, the new national LEADER initiative (2014‑2020) for the protection and sustainable use of water resources and the planned introduction of Locally Led Agri- Environment Schemes (LLAES).

Tackling Point Source Pollution

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. The EPA is the environmental regulator of Irish Water.  The EPA issues and enforces over 1,000 authorisations for waste water discharges.

In 2018, waste water from 21 of Irelands 169 large towns and cities did not meet the treatment standards set in the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.  The key actions required to resolve this are (1) significant capital investment to upgrade deficient waste water treatment systems and (2) continue improving how waste water treatment systems are operated and managed to get the best performance from them.  In 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared that Ireland has failed to fulfil its obligations under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive because waste water from some areas is not adequately collected and treated.

In mid-2019 untreated sewage was still being discharged into the environment every day from 36 towns and villages, mostly to estuaries or costal waters.  Irish Water plans to provide treatment for 23 of these areas by the end of 2021.  There are still long delays in building many of the treatment plants needed to eliminate discharges of untreated sewage.  These delays mean that 13 areas are likely to continue discharging raw sewage after 2021.

EPA Water 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:

More than 100 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €16.8m). For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database (as of June 2019)More than 60 EPA Research Reports have been published (as of June 2019)

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 Water Framework Targets

The target of 13.6% improvement in ecological status for surface waters included in the first cycle RBMPs has not been achieved, and the overall situation has not changed. A radically different approach is required to target management measures to where they are needed. There is an opportunity to improve implementation under the new water governance structures recently put in place and by using the integrated catchment management approach supported by better evidence and science.

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 pollution, will greatly assist 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. Critical inputs to informing this review will come from, the Agricultural Catchments Programme (ACP), the environmental risk assessments currently being undertaken, and the findings of the Cosaint research project investigating the impact of cattle access to waters.

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. Funding available under the new sub-theme “Protection and Sustainable use of Water Resources” under LEADER will potentially provide one valuable means of kick-starting communities to initiate local catchment projects.

 Local authorities are tasked with providing support and advice to communities through a team of water community officers to be established in 2016. Local community initiatives, with the support of the LAWCO, 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.

Urban Waste Water

Investment and operational improvements in urban waste water treatment are needed.  In 2019 the EPA identified 120 priority urban areas where improvements are required 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 shellfish and pearl mussel habitats.  Irish Water must direct resources at resolving these issues, so that improvements are prioritised where they are most needed.

Marine Waters

Key Developments for the Protection of Marine Waters include the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). This Directive 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. There is room for further coordination between the water directives (WFD, MSFD and Floods Directive) and the directives that protect biodiversity.

In terms of implementation, Ireland has established a national monitoring programme to assess Good Environmental Status (GES) and is currently in the process of developing measures that must be put in place to achieve GES by 2020.  A reformed Common Fisheries Policy came into effect in January 2014 with the main objective to restore and maintain harvested stocks above levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield. 

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. Robust increases are expected in winter and spring, in 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. 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

Coastal erosion along the Atlantic coast of Europe was particularly severe and extensive during the 2013/2014 winter period owing to extreme storm conditions. Storms of this severity had not been experienced since 1948. These factors have the potential to seriously affect the functioning of marine and coastal ecosystems, and Irish waters are not immune from these global effects.