Clean and well protected water is essential for our health and wellbeing, our economic activities and our wildlife.
While the quality of drinking water in public supplies remains high, delays in delivering public water improvements continues to put water quality and the public’s health at risk. While progress has been good over the last number of years, recently there has been a decline in water quality, with the number of ’at risk’ supplies on the EPA’s Remedial Action List increasing to 57 in mid-2022 from 52 in 2021. This underlines the fact that drinking water treatment in many supplies is still not as robust as it needs to be to ensure the supply is resilient and safe into the future.
Following significant incidents during 2021 at the Gorey and Ballymore Eustace water treatment plants, the EPA instructed Uisce Éireann to implement several actions at all supplies to prevent the reoccurrence of similar issues. As a result, more drinking water quality issues were detected and reported, with the number of Boil Water Notices/Water Restrictions increasing significantly during 2021 (96 notices) – and this increasing trend continued through 2022, protecting the health of approximately 243,000 people.
The EPA’s Water Quality in Ireland Report 2016-2021, published in October, highlighted the further decline of water quality in Ireland and that, at the current level of progress, Ireland will fail to meet the EU and national goal of restoring all waters to good or better status by 2027. The assessment showed that only just over half of surface waters (rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters) are in satisfactory condition (that is, they are achieving good or high ecological status and can sustain healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants). There has been a significant deterioration in the number of estuaries and coastal waters in satisfactory condition, mostly along the southeast and southern seaboards. Urgent and targeted action is required to reduce nitrogen emissions from agriculture in these areas.
During 2022, the EPA monitored 1622 river water bodies, 222 lakes, 90 transitional and coastal water bodies and 126 groundwater bodies for biological and chemical analysis. The EPA also conducted 1,157 river flow measurements, 137 lake level measurements and 485 groundwater level measurements and continued to publish monthly hydrometric bulletins to provide timely information on water resources.
The latest Bathing Water report showed that 78% of bathing sites have excellent water quality while 97% meet the minimum standard. This ongoing improvement in bathing water quality is attributed to improved management of bathing waters over many years together with investment in the treatment of urban waste water. During 2022, the EPA supported the multi-stakeholder National Bathing Water Expert Group to help identify potential options to better protect bathers who swim year-round.
The Beaches.ie website remains a very popular source of information on bathing water quality with over 80,000 unique page views in 2022.
Treating waste water to make it clean and safe is essential to protect our environment and public health. Improvements in waste water treatment are evident, with the number of priority areas where treatment needs to improve, reducing by almost 40% over the past five years from 147 to 91. However, there is still a long way to go to bring all deficient treatment systems up to standard and provide for future needs. It will take a multi-billion-euro investment and, based on current investment levels, at least two decades to get all treatment systems up to standard.