Water Quality in Ireland 2004 - 2006

Date released: Nov 12 2008

 The latest report on water quality in Ireland to be released by the EPA, Water Quality in Ireland 2004 – 2006, assesses the quality of  lakes, rivers, canals, coastal areas and groundwater and presents a detailed picture of the quality of Irish waters. 

This comprehensive review deals with the conditions in some 13,240 km of river and stream channel (1,151 rivers), 449 lakes, 69 estuarine and coastal waterbodies and 137 groundwater-monitoring stations.  The report finds that 29 per cent of river length is polluted to varying degrees, which is a slight improvement on previous years and that 66 lakes and 15 estuarine bodies are deemed to be of unsatisfactory quality.

Launching the report Mr Larry Stapleton, Director, EPA Office of Environmental Assessment, said:

“While there is evidence of an overall improvement in water quality in Ireland, the rate of this improvement in surface waters is not sufficient to meet the requirement of having good status in all waters by 2015 as required by the Water Framework Directive. Extensive measures will be required to achieve this target.”

A key action in the coming years is the formulation of River Basin District management plans, including the setting of objectives for waterbodies and the application of appropriate measures to ensure achieving the objectives of the Water Framework Directive within the stated timeframe.

The principal and most widespread cause of water pollution in Ireland is nutrient enrichment resulting in the eutrophication of rivers, lakes and tidal waters with discharges from municipal waste treatment plants and agricultural run-off as the main contributors.  Following the enactment of the Waste Water Discharges Regulations 2007, a licensing and certification regime for municipal waste water discharges has commenced.  This aims to prevent and reduce the pollution of waters by placing stringent conditions on the quality of municipal waste water discharges.  The EPA is now the competent authority for the purpose of authorizing waste water discharges.

According to Dr. Jim Bowman, who manages the Aquatic Environment programme in the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The main restorative measure required for surface waters is controlling and reducing nutrient inputs to these waters.  This will necessitate further upgrading of sewage and industrial waste water treatment plants to facilitate the removal of phosphorus and, where necessary, nitrogen and the full implementation of the Nitrates Action Programme to reduce nutrient losses from agricultural activities.”

Deterioration of groundwater quality is also a major cause for concern.  Faecal coliforms were detected in more than half of the groundwater locations sampled.  This constitutes a risk for those using such untreated waters for drinking water purposes in the absence of disinfection.

Dr Bowman said:

“Proper management of groundwater resources is needed in order to prevent pollution of groundwater sources, maintain the quality and yield of drinking water from these sources, and ensure that groundwater is not having a detrimental impact on surface water and ecological receptors.”

Download the Water Quality in Ireland Report.  

Colour coded water quality maps for rivers, lakes and tidal waters are also available for purchase from EPA Publication Sales, McCumiskey House, Richview, Dublin 16. Telephone 01 2680100.  Cost: €30 for all three, or €10 each.


Further information: Alma Hynes, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours).

Summary Findings

Rivers & Streams

  • Serious pollution in rivers and streams has reduced further to 63.5 km (0.5% of surveyed channel length), its lowest level in recent decades. More than half of the instances of serious pollution (54%) were considered to be caused by municipal discharges.
  • Over one quarter of the river and stream channel surveyed in the period is classed as moderately (10.3%) or slightly (18.1%) polluted – attributed mainly to nutrient enrichment.  The reduction in the extent of such pollution, noted in the late 1990s, continued in the 2004 to 2006 period. The main suspected causes of this pollution are municipal and agricultural waste discharges.
  •  Overall there has been an increase in the proportion of unpolluted channel, up 2.1 per cent to 71.4 per cent (9,451km of channel length).  
  •  A marked reduction in the number of fish kills was recorded.
  •  Nitrate concentrations are significantly above natural levels in rivers and streams in several areas of the State, particularly in the southeast and south.
  •  The available data indicate that the levels of potentially dangerous substances in rivers are generally insignificant.


  • Almost 92 per cent of the total area of lake water examined was deemed to be in a satisfactory condition, showing natural or only slightly enhanced levels of algal growth.
  • Although open waters in the large western lakes showed low or moderate levels of planktonic algae, instances of excessive algal and attached plant growth occurred closer to the shore.
  • Highly eutrophic or hypertrophic conditions continued to affect some lakes including Loughs Sillan, Oughter, Gowna and Ramor.
  • The designated fresh water bathing areas (all of which are situated on lakes) showed full compliance with EU mandatory standards.

Estuaries and Coastal Waters

  • Of the 69 tidal areas assessed for eutrophication, 54 (78 per cent) were classed as unpolluted or showing only slight signs of eutrophication.  Sixty of the 69 water bodies assessed have remained in the same status since the last assessment.
  •  Eutrophic conditions were measured in 13 of the remaining 15 water bodies while the other two were classed as potentially eutrophic.
  • Areas experiencing eutrophication included: the Castletown Estuary, the lower Slaney Estuary and Wexford Harbour, the upper and lower Blackwater (Munster) and Bandon Estuaries.
  • Marine Institute data show that the levels of toxic contaminants in fish and shellfish harvested from tidal waters remained low and well within the limits set for the protection of consumers. However, the assessment of the sanitary conditions in shellfish waters again shows a requirement for purification of live molluscs before sale, due to the presence of faecal coliforms. 
  • The results of the monitoring of radioactivity in the marine environment by the Radiological Protection Institute between 2003 and 2005 show that, the levels of anthropogenic radioactivity in the Irish environment are low by comparison with the doses received as a result of background radiation and do not pose a significant risk to human health.
  • The Irish Coast Guard received 149 reports of pollution in the period, with mineral oils comprising the bulk (84 percent) of the polluting material observed, with diesel and gas oils most commonly identified. In the majority of cases the identity of the vessels could not be established. The majority of discharges occurred in small harbours and surrounding areas.


  • Faecal coliforms were detected in one in four of all of the samples analysed (an increase on the previous period). 
  • The average Nitrate concentrations exceeded the drinking water guide limit at 27 per cent of the groundwater sampling locations and at 2 per cent of the sampling locations the average concentrations were above the mandatory limit. The south east of the country had the greatest proportion of monitoring locations with elevated nitrate concentrations.

Water Framework Directive

The Directive was brought into Irish law by regulation in December 2003. Its main requirements include:

  •  the attainment of good quality in all waters by 2015,
  •  the management of waters on a River Basin District (RBD) basis, 
  •  the elimination of the discharge of certain harmful substances to waters 
  •  and the sustainable use of water resources.

Satisfactory progress was made in the period with the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. New monitoring programmes for surface and groundwaters were made operational in December 2006 and in 2007 replaced the national monitoring programmes. New Water Framework Directive compliant biological classification systems and standards for physico-chemical and chemical parameters were developed for determining the quality status of the waterbodies.

Current tasks include the formulation of Interim River Basin District management plans including the setting of objectives for waterbodies and the application of appropriate measures to ensure achieving the Water Framework Directives objectives within the stated timeframe.