Ireland’s water resources are an important natural asset. 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. Supported by national and local-level schemes, work is underway to identify key threats to water quality on a catchment basis and develop mitigation measures.

Current trends in water quality

Glashaboy slow stream

Our surface waters and groundwaters continue to be under pressure from human activities. There has been no significant change in the biological quality of our rivers and lakes in 2022 and any improvements we are seeing are being offset by declines elsewhere.

Two-fifths of our river sites nationally are exhibiting high nitrogen concentrations and the rivers, groundwaters and estuaries in the south east are under particular pressure from excessive nitrogen coming from intensive agricultural activities over freely draining soils in these areas. Phosphorus concentrations are too high in over a quarter of our rivers and over one third of lakes and this is impacting on their biological quality. 

The loads of nitrogen and phosphorus coming from our major rivers to our marine environment have been increasing since 2013 and are putting the water quality of our estuaries and coastal waters, particularly in the south east, under sustained pressure. 

Overall nutrient levels remain too high in many water bodies and there is no indication that they are decreasing. We will not meet our water quality objectives unless, and until, we reduce the emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus to our waters.

The agriculture and waste water 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 by using existing knowledge to ensure that the right measure is being applied in the right place.   

Causes of pressure on the water environment

Image laney ford's mill

A number of human activities are responsible for water pollution, so preventing water bodies from achieving their environmental objectives. The most common 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. 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.

Our marine and coastal areas are impacted by several human-induced pressures including fishing, eutrophication, climate change and litter. Coastal development 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.

Learn more about the causes of impacts on the water environment



What's being done

A waste water treatment plant with a tree in the foreground

Ireland’s second-cycle River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 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. The Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO) and the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) were set up under this Plan. It also established the Blue Dot Catchments Programme to give focus to the protection of remaining high status waters. Underpinning the new water governance arrangements for managing water quality is the integrated catchment management-based approach.

Ireland's Nitrates Action Programme aims to prevent pollution of surface waters and groundwater from agricultural sources and to protect and improve water quality. 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. 

The Plan also provided for an investment by Irish Water of €1.7 billion in wastewater projects, programmes and asset maintenance. The Utility is charged with providing infrastructure to eliminate the discharge of raw sewage and completing the improvements needed to ensure waste water does not prevent receiving waters from meeting their environmental objectives.

At a European level, the EU Green Deal includes specific action plans and strategies for clean water.

Learn more about what's being done about water quality


Outlook for Ireland's water environment

Image roundstone

There was an overall net improvement in the 190 Areas for Action prioritised in the River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) 2018-2121, showing that action taken to improve water quality delivers results. The knowledge gathered in monitoring programmes and water-related research projects needs to be used more widely.  It can provide information and solutions to water quality problems and inform policy development in this area. 

While some water bodies improved in status in recent years, overall there has been a decline in surface water quality. If this rate of decline continues, it is unlikely that the modest targets set in Ireland’s second-cycle RBMP will be met. Nearly 1,500 water bodies have been identified as being at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives. 

Local community initiatives are providing opportunities for local communities and farmers to get involved in local water quality catchment-based projects. With the support of LAWPRO, these initiatives have the potential to more effectively tackle threats to water protection and restoration at a local level.

Key developments for the protection of marine waters include the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Marine Spatial Planning Directive, and the adoption of measures stemming from the review of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Climate change is expected to bring additional pressures to bear on Ireland's water environment. Waters which are clean and relatively free of pollution will be more resilient. The ecological health of our inland surface waters will ultimately determine the ability of these waters to cope with the effects of climate change.  

Learn more about the outlook for our water environment


Water indicators