Water quality trends going “in the wrong direction”

15 December 2020 

Just over half of Irish surface waters are in a satisfactory condition and trends are going “in the wrong direction”, according to a new report. 

The Environmental Protection Agency published their Water Quality Indicators Report 2019 today, and found that nitrate concentrations are now increasing in nearly half of river and groundwater sites. 

These concentrations are highest in the south and south east of the country, where its main source is agriculture.

Excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which are primarily coming from agriculture and waste water, are the “main threat” to water quality, according to the agency. 

“Elevated nutrient concentrations are contributing to pollution in our freshwaters and estuaries and causing difficulties with drinking water standards in some areas.

Urgent action is now needed to reduce nutrient inputs from agriculture,” EPA Programme Manager Mary Gurrie said. 

“Measures need to be targeted at the critical source areas where nitrogen and phosphate problems occur. There is a lot of good work happening at a local level to improve water quality and this needs to be scaled up to deliver the improvements needed,” she added. 

A 30-fold increase 

Commenting on the report, Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) noted there was a 30-fold increase in river sites showing higher nitrate levels over the past five years.

Ireland is failing to adhere to EU law by failing to reduce nitrate and phosphate concentrations, and the state is at risk of incurring significant fines and losing ‘Nitrates Derogation’, on which the intensive dairy industry depends, SWAN warned. 

The EPA’s findings signal that “this is nothing short of a water pollution crisis”, according to SWAN Coordinator Sinead O’Brien. 

“It is clear from this report (along with other recent EPA work) that this crisis is directly linked to agricultural intensification. The state has embarked recklessly on a policy of aggressive agricultural expansion, particularly in the dairy sector from 2015. 

It did so despite clear warnings from scientists and from SWAN member groups about the environmental risks. We’re now seeing the consequences of that irresponsible decision,” she said. 

In last year’s Water Quality report, the EPA had warned once again that the overall water quality in Ireland’s lakes and rivers and estuaries was deteriorating, effectively reversing all gains achieved in recent years. 

The total number of pristine water resources in Ireland has now dropped to just 20, plummetting from around 500 such sites in the 1980s. 

About the Author

Kayle Crosson