Progress with meeting environmental objectives of the Water Framework Directive

While some water bodies have improved in status in recent years overall there has been a 4.4% net decline in surface water quality. This decline is being seen most clearly in our river water bodies which have declined by 5.5% since 2015. If this rate of decline continues it is unlikely that the modest targets set in Ireland’s second-cycle RBMP 2018-2021 will be met. Nearly 1,500 water bodies have been identified as being at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives. It is likely that the majority of these will fail to meet their objectives unless measures required to address water quality issues can be targeted to where they are needed. On a more positive note, while overall water quality deteriorated nationally there was an overall net improvement in the 190 Areas for Action prioritised in the RBMP. This suggests that when action is taken to improve water quality it delivers results. The current Plan runs to 2021 so there may be further improvements over this period.

The challenge now must be to learn from the successes and apply them nationally to reverse the negative trends we are seeing in water quality. We must also ensure that the knowledge gathered in monitoring programmes and water-related research projects is used more widely to provide information and solutions to water quality problems and to inform policy development in this area. 

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 diffuse pollution, will greatly assist LAWPRO and ASSAP 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. Measures will be required to address the issues identified during farm inspections such as inadequate management of animal manures, contamination of waters by run-off from farmyards and structural defects in manure storage facilities. 


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. There are now eight Rivers Trust Charities stretching from Donegal to Wexford (Slaney Rivers Trust, Nore Suir Rivers Trust, Blackwater Rivers Trust, Waterville Lakes and Rivers Trust, Maigue Rivers Trust, Moy Rivers Trust, Erne Rivers Trust and Inishowen Rivers Trust). Funds available from the Community Water Fund and from national and European research projects (LEADER and LIFE projects) are providing opportunities for local communities and farmers to get involved in local water quality catchment based projects. Local community initiatives, with the support of the LAWPRO, 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.

Citizen science also provides an opportunity for local communities to get involved in science projects that tell us about the quality of the aquatic environment. The Dragonfly Ireland 2019-2024 project is seeking volunteers to record sightings of dragonflies and damselflies while the Explore Your Shore project is looking for volunteers to identify the different types of animals and plants found in seashore rockpools.


Urban waste water

Significant and sustained investment is needed to upgrade deficient waste water treatment systems. In 2021 the EPA identified 97 urban areas where treatment must improve as a priority to address the following: (1) comply with EU standards for the collection and treatment of urban waste water; (2) eliminate discharges of raw sewage; (3) improve treatment where waste water is the main pressure on water bodies at risk of not meeting their environmental objectives (4) protect the habitats of endangered freshwater pearl mussels. Irish Water must direct resources at resolving these issues, so that improvements are prioritised where they are most needed to protect human health and the environment.


Marine waters

Key developments for the protection of marine waters include the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Marine Spatial Planning Directive and the adoption of measures stemming from the review of the Common Fisheries Policy. Further progress will also need to be made in formally designating a coherent and ecologically representative network of marine protected areas.

The MSFD 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.

As part of the Marine Spatial Planning Directive and Ireland’s National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), a Marine Spatial Plan has been produced that will provide guidance for future developments affecting the marine environment. The framework will provide guidance on the sustainable planning and management of marine resources, balancing ecological, economic and social objectives in relation to aspects such as the environment, biodiversity, commercial fisheries and renewable energy.

Under the Common Fisheries Policy a number of historical and recent measures have been developed to ensure that fishing, and aquaculture, are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. Since 2014 CFP reform has led to the phased introduction of landing obligations for species subject to catch limits. This aims to eliminate the practice of discarding unwanted catches. It is expected that these obligations, together with changes in fishing gear and fishing methods, could lead to an improvement in fish stocks and a more sustainable fishing industry. Bottom trawling on deep sea reef habitats designated under the EU Habitats Directive has been banned, while large trawlers are banned from waters inside 6 nautical miles of the Irish coast from 2020.


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.  Increases in rainfall are expected to result in higher flow rates in winter and spring, of 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. In addition, the intensity of rainfall episodes is expected to increase, giving the land less time to soak up and cope with high volumes of water. 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.

Flood events are likely to be exacerbated by rising sea levels. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea level is predicted to rise by between 0.43 metres and 0.84 metres by the end of the century, based on emission scenarios compatible with achieving the long-term temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement. Incidents of coastal erosion and flooding from increased storm activity will be magnified by sea level rise posing a serious risk to Ireland’s coastal areas and major coastal cities.

Droughts are not uncommon events in Ireland. Longer-term drought patterns indicate Ireland has had several drought rich periods since 1765. While the recent 2018 drought was intense it was considerably more short-lived than previously identified historical droughts. The EPA’s assessment of the 2018 drought in Ireland indicated that the impact on river flows nationally wasn’t as prolonged or severe as 1975-76, or as severe as 1995 in the midlands and west of the country. The 2018 drought should not be viewed as a ‘worst case scenario’ from a groundwater perspective and was not representative of either a prolonged severe, or an inter-annual drought.  Both historical patterns of climate variability and projections of future climate change (i.e. decreases in summer precipitation and higher temperatures) suggest that there will be significant risk of more frequent and severe droughts.

Higher air temperatures will also bring higher water temperatures. Warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen, critical to the survival of aquatic organisms. Higher water temperature, reduced oxygen concentration and decreased water volume, during a drought, may act together to put further pressure on aquatic ecosystems already suffering the effects of water pollution. It follows therefore that waters which are clean and relatively free of pollution will be more resilient to the additional pressures brought by climate change. The ecological health of our inland surface waters will ultimately determine the ability of these waters to cope with the effects of climate change.