Date released: June 13, 2023
14 June 2023: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today published the report Water Quality in 2022 – An Indicators Report which provides an update on the water quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal, and groundwaters for 2022.
The report states that one of the most significant stressors on water quality and ecosystem health is high nutrient levels, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients can enter our waters as a result of human activities such as agriculture, waste water and forestry. The EPA’s assessment shows no significant improvement nationally in the biological quality of rivers and lakes in 2022, which is largely attributable to excess nitrogen and phosphorous.
Overall, nitrogen levels in rivers and groundwater increased between 2021 and 2022. Nitrogen is too high in 40 percent of river sites and in 20 percent of estuarine and coastal water bodies. In addition, phosphorus levels are too high in 28 percent of rivers and 36 percent of lakes.
Commenting on the report, Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment, said:
“Clean water is essential for our health and wellbeing, our economy and for wildlife. The failure to improve water quality in 2022 and over the longer term is extremely disappointing. We will not meet our water quality objectives until nutrient levels are reduced in those areas where they are too high. Addressing this must be a priority for the agriculture sector and Uisce Éireann to reduce the losses of nutrients to water.
While we can see improvements happening in some areas, these are offset by declines elsewhere, so overall there is no discernible change in the biological quality of our rivers or lakes in 2022. Improvements need to be far greater and more widespread to translate into an improving national picture”.
The ecology of our estuaries and coastal waters are particularly sensitive to nitrogen. The worst impacted estuaries for nitrogen exceedances are Glashaboy Estuary (Cork), Wexford Harbour, Castletown Estuary (Louth), Upper Barrow Estuary (Kilkenny) and Corock Estuary (Wexford).
Changes in nutrient levels and biological quality are key indicators of progress in achieving our water quality objectives. When these excess nutrients enter our water courses, they cause an overgrowth of plants and algae. This in turn clogs up our water courses, uses up oxygen and harms other more sensitive aquatic life.
Mary Gurrie, EPA Programme Manager, added:
“We need to see full implementation of the Nitrates Action Programme through compliance promotion and targeted agricultural inspections. Uisce Éireann must prioritise investment in areas where wastewater is impacting on water quality, and the forthcoming River Basin Management Plan must provide a comprehensive plan to address all the pressures on our water environment to protect and improve this precious resource.’
Water Quality in 2022 – An Indicators Report is now available on the EPA website.
Further information: Emily Williamson, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours) or email@example.com
Notes to Editor
EPA Reporting: The EPA undertakes a full assessment of the overall quality and ecological status of Ireland’s waters every three years. The latest full assessment was published in October 2022 and can be found on the EPA website. The EPA reports on the indicators of water quality in the intervening years to provide an update on trends in the biological quality and nutrient levels of our waterbodies. This year’s indicators report provides an update on the water quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal, and groundwaters using monitoring data collected in the 2022 period.
Water Body: A water body 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.
Water Quality Objectives: 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 achieving their targets. A river basin management plan must be developed and implemented which sets out the actions needed to protect and restore waters.
River Basin Management Plan: The River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 sets out the actions that were to be taken to improve and protect water quality up to the end of 2021. A new plan for the period 2022-2027 will be published in 2023. Further information about the National River Basin Management Plan is available on the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage website.
Nitrates Action Programme (NAP): The Nitrates Directive has the objective of reducing water pollution caused by nutrients from agricultural sources and preventing further such pollution. According to the directive Member States must develop and implement an action programme and appropriate legislation to reduce and prevent such pollution. The Fifth Nitrates Action Programme is currently in effect and runs from 2022 to 2025. Further information about the NAP is available on the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage website.
Further information on the EPA’s assessment of the reductions in nitrogen needed to achieve water quality objectives can be found online.
www.catchments.ie: A collaborative EPA, LAWPRO and Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage 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.