Water quality in majority of Irish rivers and lakes is unacceptably poor, committee hears

Water quality crisis is leading to loss of nature and contamination, An Taisce says

The quality of water in many Irish rivers, lakes and estuaries is unacceptably poor, while a plan on river basin management does not offer realistic hope degraded waters can be restored to good health, the Oireachtas committee on housing, local government and heritage has been told.

Despite the global impression of Ireland as being clean and green, more than half of its rivers, lakes and estuaries were in an unhealthy state, Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) co-ordinator Sinéad O'Brien told the committee, which is reviewing the draft river-basin management plan (RBMP) for Ireland 2022-2027, on Thursday.

“Nitrate and phosphate pollution in rivers has increased significantly since 2013,” she added.

Ms O’Brien commended the work of staff in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage; the Local Authority Waters Programme and the EPA’s catchments unit in regard to waters, but said “their good work has been negated by conflicting policy in other areas, in particular lack of investment and unsustainable land use, which is driving nutrient inputs to levels which are detrimental to the long-term welfare of the environment, Ireland and its people”.


The draft RBMP lacked targeted actions to restore all degraded waters to good status and was not a coherent response to either the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) or the programme for Government, she said.

It was “far too weak on urban wastewater pollution” – which is the main source of pollution in 208 water bodies – failing to set out solutions in this regard.

Irish Water “should set out where this wastewater pollution is happening; the wastewater system causing it, and where there is – and is not – a proposed plan to fix it, with a timeline”, she added.

Water quality crisis

An Taisce’s natural environment officer Dr Elaine McGoff said the review coincided with a worsening water quality crisis that was leading to loss of nature, swimming bans, and drinking-water contamination.

There were 13 catchments in the south and southeast, including the Barrow, the Slaney and the Lee, which were of particular concern due to nitrate pollution from agriculture – while more than one-third of all river sites had increasing levels of nitrate pollution, she said.

The draft RBMP relied heavily on measures proposed in the nitrates action programme (NAP) and good agricultural practice (GAP) regulations, while other measures proposed were voluntary, somewhat vague, not timetabled or not targeted, she said.

It should be “of grave concern” that the Department of Housing concluded the previous nitrates action programme had failed because of agricultural industry expansion and poor compliance, she said. “To put numbers on that, the dairy herd has increased by approximately 50 per cent since 2010, and artificial fertiliser import has increased by almost 40 per cent in a similar timeframe.”

She acknowledged additional measures added to the NAP and GAP regulations, “which will partially address nitrate pollution, but they’re really inadequate to tackle it properly”.

She said that cattle urine was “the main driver of nitrate loss, far above artificial fertiliser and slurry, yet there is no mitigation for this provided in the NAP or GAP regulations”.

SWAN was calling for the introduction of environmental risk assessments for all intensive farms, she said. “Intensification should only be permitted if it can be demonstrated that it won’t impact on water quality.”

The CSO had found 79 per cent of people surveyed put water pollution as their top environmental concern, Dr McGoff noted. “The reason the public aren’t being louder about this is water pollution is often invisible . . . it’s only a matter of time before the public become aware of the scale of the problem and then they’ll be looking for answers as to why this was allowed to happen.”


Committee chairman and Green TD Steven Matthews pointed out the WFD, which includes canals, reservoirs and coastal waters, requires that all water bodies must be restored to good status by 2027.

Teagasc director Prof Frank O'Mara said water quality and minimising the environmental impact of agriculture was a priority for his agency. This was reflected in high levels of participation in its agricultural sustainability support and advisory programme working with farmers to help improve water quality, he said. Its agricultural catchments programme (ACP), which was freely available, helped farmers identify measures to reduce run-off on their farms.

Based on Teagasc's submission to the committee, Fianna Fáil Deputy Joe Flaherty said farmers should not be vilified for their response to water quality issues. He welcomed the engagement shown by them in addressing problems.

Ms O’Brien, however, noted 37 per cent of farmers had not implemented recommended ACP measures, which she believed pointed to the need for stronger oversight under the new RBMP, by putting in place 46 catchment community water officers.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times