A greater focus on protecting our most pristine water environments is needed, says EPA

The EPA has today released its latest national assessment of water quality in Ireland.  The release coincides with World Water Week, which links scientific understanding with policy-making and positive action toward water-related challenges.

The EPA assessment covers the six-year period between 2010 and 2015 and is the first full, six-year, assessment of the status of our waters under the Water Framework Directive. The assessment concludes that while there has been little overall change in water quality in the six years up to the end of 2015, there has been:

  •  a failure to meet the planned national target of 13 per cent improvement in water status for the six-year period;
  • a failure to prevent deterioration of water status at hundreds of water bodies around the country, which cancels out the improvements in water status at a similar number of water bodies in other parts of the country;
  • welcome progress relating to a continued reduction in the level of seriously polluted waters – only six river water bodies were categorised as “Bad” in 2010–2015 compared to 19 in 2007–2009; and
  • a continued and unwelcome decline in the number of our pristine rivers –  only 21 sites achieved the highest quality rating from 2013-2015 compared to over 500 sites in the late 1980s.

Commenting on the assessment, Dr Matt Crowe, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment said:

“We are fortunate in Ireland to have so many beautiful beaches, rivers, lakes, estuaries and canals.  Water is part of what we are as an island people and there are few of us who do not have a personal connection to water, be it our favourite beach, river or lake, the well that supplies our family with drinking water or our favourite spot for a bit of fishing or a quiet walk.
“Clean and well protected water is also a key national asset and supports many important economic activities such as agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. We must do a lot more and work much harder at protecting this vital national asset.”

Overall, 91 per cent of groundwater bodies, 57 per cent of rivers, 46 per cent of lakes, 31 per cent of estuaries and 79 per cent of coastal waters were found to be of good quality under the Water Framework Directive.  The Water Framework Directive, other than in exceptional circumstances, requires good water status for all water bodies.

Addressing the main findings of the assessment, Dr Crowe said,

“The good news is that we have almost eliminated the worst of the worst of polluted sites.  Only six river water bodies were categorised as’ bad’ in this assessment compared with 19 for the 2007-2009 period. The bad news is that the decline in our most pristine waters, the best of the best, has continued. We now need to put the necessary measures and resources in place to arrest any further deterioration of water status and to make necessary improvements. Decisions about what to do and who should do it and pay for it need to be based on scientific evidence and requires constructive engagement and collaboration across a wide range of stakeholders. By doing this, the right action can be taken in the right place by the right people and organisations.”

Mr. Andy Fanning, Programme Manager for the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment said:

“While the national picture is relatively stable, some water bodies have improved while others have deteriorated, which highlights that not enough has been done to prevent deterioration of water quality. The EPA is assessing the significant pressures that are contributing to waters being in unsatisfactory condition or being at risk of deteriorating. The initial outcomes of this assessment were included in the draft River Basin Management Plan and provide the scientific basis for measures that will be prioritised in the final River Basin Management Plan that is due for publication at the end of 2017”.

The assessment is available on the EPA website and the accompanying data used in the water quality assessments are available on www.catchments.ie. More recent localised information on water quality is available on-line through www.epa.ie and www.catchments.ie.


Water Quality in Ireland Reports: The EPA has produced a number of periodic Water Quality in Ireland Reports on a three yearly cycle, all of which are available on the EPA website.
Main causes of pollution: The assessment shows that elevated levels of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in waters, causing excessive growth of plants, continues to be the most widespread water quality problem in Ireland. Nutrient losses from agriculture and domestic wastewater discharges are the primary reasons why the water quality objectives of the Water Framework Directive are not being met. In relation to agriculture, the pressures relate to diffuse nutrient run-off, sediment from land and point sources associated with farmyards. For wastewater, the main pressure is from urban wastewater discharges, but private wastewater discharges – for example, septic tanks – and diffuse urban discharges, which include losses from urban wastewater misconnections, are also significant contributors.For further information see the Executive Summary or the water quality assessments on External linkwww.catchments.ie.National River Basin Management Plan: Further information about the National River Basin Management Plan is available on the External linkDepartment of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government website.

External linkwww.catchments.ie: A collaborative EPA, Local Authority Waters and Communities Office and Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government website that is used to share information and resources on water in Ireland. It includes water quality assessments undertaken by the EPA for the Water Framework Directive.

Water Framework Directive: The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the primary Directive that sets out water quality objectives and common metrics for assessing and reporting on the quality of freshwater in Europe. These assessments are undertaken on a six-yearly cycle, with the outcomes reported by each country in their respective River Basin Management Plans.

Significant pressures: Activities, such as wastewater discharges, industrial discharges or agriculture, that are identified as being significant contributors to surface water or groundwater bodies failing to meet their WFD objectives.

“Bad” category: The WFD category that indicates the worst surface water quality, which are regarded as being seriously polluted.

“Pristine” waters: The best quality waters are assigned a high status WFD category, and a portion of these high status water bodies are defined as being pristine. Sometimes they are also referred to as “Q5” sites (achieving an ecological quality score of 5/5) or reference condition sites, and they are regarded as being largely un-impacted by human activities.

“Unpolluted” rivers: Includes those rivers assessed as being at high ecological status (an ecological quality score of Q5/5 or Q4.5/5) or good ecological status (an ecological quality score Q4/5).

Source: EPA