Water Nitrate levels require ‘urgent’ action, EPA reports finds

14 July 2021

‘Urgent and targeted action’ is needed to reduce nitrogen pollution in our waters, an EPA report has warned.

The EPA Water Quality In 2020 published assessed the quality of Ireland’s waters and found they continue to be under pressure from human activities.

High levels of nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen pose the main threat to water quality.

The report states that nearly half the rivers (47%), a quarter of groundwaters (24%) and one fifth of estuarine and coastal water bodies (21%) have nitrogen levels that are too high.

Many rivers in the south, southeast and east of Ireland are under pressure due to excess nitrogen, primarily from agricultural activities.

Specifically, rivers Bandon, Lee, Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow and Slaney have nitrogen levels that have ‘significant implications’ for the marine environments they affect.

High nitrogen concentrations can lead to overgrowth of plants and algae. This displaces other organisms and can lead to oxygen depletion, damaging the water’s ecology. High nitrate levels above Drinking Water Standard can also pose a risk to human health.

“If we do not substantially reduce nitrogen inputs to our rivers, and ultimately our marine environment, we are in danger of further deteriorations in water quality and losing our excellent coastal water quality” said EPA Director of Evidence and Assessment, Dr Eimear Cotter.

Signs of improvement

Just over half (57%) of Ireland’s rivers and lakes are in a ‘satisfactory condition.’ These bodies of water can sustain healthy ecosystems for fish, insects, and plants.

Further, the report found ‘modest improvement’ in river quality with 345 rivers showing improvements in quality, while 230 declined in quality.

The report found ‘encouraging signs of improvement’ for prioritised areas, but there is still more to be done.

EPA Programme Manager Mary Gurrie, added that “it is essential that action is taken in both the next River Basin Management Plan and the Nitrates Action Programme to continue improvements whilst also preventing further deterioration.”

A review of Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) is currently underway. According to this directive, States must develop and implement a plan to reduce and prevent further nitrate pollution.

A new River Basin Management Plan is set to be published in 2022. The current plan sets out actions to improve water quality and achieve ‘good’ ecological status by 2027.

Today’s report is “not a good news story”, According to Natural Environment Officer at An Taisce Dr. Elaine McGoff.

“This is yet another report from the EPA again highlighting the consistent decline in water quality. While there have been some small improvements, they’re overshadowed by the declines,” she told The Green News.

“Do we have to wait until our water quality entirely collapses before we see meaningful action? We need wholesale and effective action, not tinkering around the edges. The need is great and the time is now,” Dr. McGoff added.

Story by Sam Starkey