Improvements in Ireland’s Water Quality

The latest report on water quality in Ireland by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found evidence of improvements in water quality in Ireland. However, continued actions across a range of sectors are needed if Ireland is to achieve its European water quality obligations.

The report, ‘Water Quality in Ireland 2007 – 2009’, is a comprehensive review which covers 13,118 km of river and stream channel (1,700 rivers), 222 lakes, 89 estuarine and coastal water bodies and 211 groundwater monitoring stations.

Rivers

In rivers, 70% of channel is in good condition, but measures are needed to restore the quality of the 30% that was found to be polluted. The number of seriously polluted river sites was down to 20 – half that seen in 2004-2006. Increased investment in wastewater treatment has helped to eliminate some of this serious pollution. The number of fish kills was significantly down on previous periods, with 72 incidents reported in 2007-2009, compared with 120 incidents in the previous three year period.

Lakes

Lakes are generally in good condition with over 90% of lake area in satisfactory condition, but 25 lakes were still in poor or bad status – mainly due to excess phosphates causing algal blooms.

Estuaries

Of the estuaries assessed, 85% were unpolluted, while 15% were classed as eutrophic or potentially eutrophic. In terms of area, approximately 5% of tidal areas was polluted. Some significant improvements were noted where new wastewater treatment plants had been installed recently – such as Sligo and the Garavogue estuary.

Groundwaters

Monitoring of groundwaters showed a significant drop in the overall concentration of phosphates and nitrates during the period – 85% of groundwaters were in satisfactory condition – but there was an upward trend in the detection of faecal coliforms – apparently due to increased rainfall in the period.

Micheal O Cinneide, director, EPA Office of Environmental Assessment, comments: “In comparison with other EU member States, Ireland has better than average water quality. While there is evidence of an overall improvement in water quality in Ireland, further actions are essential if we are to achieve our water quality targets for 2015 and 2021 as required by the Water Framework Directive. The EPA will work with the network of local authorities, with sectoral groups and other agencies in tackling the water quality challenges.”

A key development in the last three years has been the publication of the River Basin Management Plans, including the setting of objectives for water bodies and the selection of Programmes of Measures to meet the objectives of the Water Framework Directive.

The principal and most widespread cause of water pollution in Ireland is nutrient enrichment resulting in the eutrophication of rivers, lakes and tidal waters from agricultural run-off and discharges from municipal waste treatment plants. Following the enactment of the Waste Water Discharges Regulations 2007, the EPA set up a licensing and certification regime for municipal waste water discharges, to reduce the pollution of waters by placing strict conditions on the quality of waste water discharges. The latest EPA survey shows that the investments under the Water Services programme have led to improvements in water quality.

According to Martin McGarrigle, who has a lead role in the Aquatic Environment monitoring programme in the Environmental Protection Agency: “The three challenges for water quality management are firstly, eliminating serious pollution associated with point sources, that is wastewater treatment plants; secondly, tackling diffuse pollution, meaning pollution from farming and septic tanks; and thirdly using the full range of legislative measures in an integrated way to achieve better water quality.”

Overall, 85% of groundwater bodies were of good status in accordance with the Water Framework Directive (WFD) process. Pollution of groundwater has decreased somewhat in this period with reductions in nitrate and phosphate concentrations. While the above average rainfall has played a role, it is likely that implementation of the Good Agricultural Practices Regulations and, in particular, the increase in farm storage for manure and slurry, and the reduced usage of inorganic fertilizers have been beneficial.

Donal Daly, head of the Groundwater programme in EPA, says: “Further improvements in groundwater quality are required for both environmental and public health reasons. Key measures should include the optimal application by farmers of organic and inorganic fertilizers at times and in a manner that minimises leaching, and householders ensuring that their on-site wastewater treatment systems, such as septic tanks, are located, constructed and maintained properly.”

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