There are no signs yet of an improvement in water quality and more action is needed, says EPA

Date released: June 11, 2024

  • There has been no significant change in any of the water quality indicators for Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwaters in 2023 and no sign of improvement overall.  
  • While improvements are happening in some rivers and lakes, these are being offset by declines elsewhere. 
  • The biggest issue impacting water quality is nutrient pollution from agriculture and wastewater. 
  • Average nitrate levels in rivers, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters are largely unchanged and remain too high in the east, southeast and south.  
  • Average phosphorus levels in rivers and lakes are also largely unchanged and remain too high in over one quarter (27 per cent) of rivers and one third (35 per cent) of lakes.

12th June 2024: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today published Water Quality in 2023: An Indicators Report.  The report provides an update of the key indicators of the quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal and groundwaters using monitoring data collected in 2023. 

Overall, the report shows that there has been no significant change in water quality. Water quality in Ireland is not improving and nutrient levels remain too high in a large proportion of water bodies. The biological health of our rivers and our lakes have shown small net declines. While some improvements are being made these are being offset by declines elsewhere. 

Commenting on the report, Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment, said:

“It is disappointing to report that our water quality is not improving. While there are initiatives happening nationally, measures to address water quality are not being implemented at the scale or pace required. The quality of our water bodies will not improve until nutrient levels are reduced in areas where they are elevated. It is essential that there is full compliance with the Good Agricultural Practice Regulations and that actions to reduce losses of nutrients from agriculture are targeted to where they are needed. We also need to see an acceleration in the pace at which Uisce Éireann is delivering improvements in wastewater infrastructure”.  

Nitrogen pollution remains a significant issue in the east, southeast and south of the country. 42 per cent of river sites, 17 per cent of estuarine and coastal waters and 20 per cent of groundwater sites all have nitrogen levels that are unsatisfactory. This is primarily attributable to intensive agricultural activities on freely draining soils in these areas.
Phosphate levels can fluctuate annually but overall there has been no significant change over recent years. 27 per cent of river sites and 35 per cent of lakes (particularly in the north and northeast) have elevated phosphorus levels. Phosphorus entering our waters is largely associated with poorly treated wastewater and run-off from agricultural lands with poorly draining soils.

Mary Gurrie, EPA Programme Manager, added:

“The report shows that more action is needed to achieve our legally binding water quality objectives. It is imperative that the next River Basin Management Plan, which is now over two years late, is published without further delay. Associated with this, there needs to be a significant improvement in the tracking and reporting of measures, to identify what is and isn’t working so that actions can be adapted or enhanced where needed to deliver water quality improvements.”

Water Quality in 2023: An Indicators Report is now available on the EPA website.  

Further information on water quality is available on

Further information: Emily Williamson, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours) or

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 water bodies. 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 2023 period.

Water Body: A water body is an area of water, which is usually either the whole or 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 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.

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 water bodies by protecting water bodies that are at high and good status and restoring water bodies 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.

Pressures impacting on waters: The EPA has published a series of reports on the main pressures impacting on waters which are available at Update on pressures impacting on water quality and Significant Pressures. Catchment level information on water quality is available at Updated Cycle 3 Catchment Reports published by EPA

River Basin Management Plan: The River Basin Management Plan sets out the national policy and actions that will be taken to improve and protect water quality.  Further information about the National River Basin Management Plan is available on the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage website. 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.