Irish water quality better than EU average, but still below anti-pollution targets


SEVENTY PER cent of Ireland’s watercourses are in good condition and major investment will be required over coming years if Ireland is to meet EU water quality and anti-pollution targets.

That is according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which today publishes the most comprehensive review undertaken to date of the condition of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, groundwater and estuaries.

In addition to sustaining investment levels at the current figure of about €500 million per year, the EPA said it would need new governance structures to implement improvements identified by the review.

Entitled Water Quality in Ireland 2007-2009, the review covers 1,700 rivers, 222 lakes, 89 estuarine and coastal water bodies and 211 groundwater monitoring stations.

A similar review covering the years from 2004 until 2006 was less comprehensive in its scope, particularly in relation to coastal waters, according to the EPA.

While the overall conclusion was that Ireland’s watercourses were holding up better than average rates across the EU, this was not good enough to meet binding EU water framework directive targets set for 2015 and 2021.

Today’s report indicates that the most widespread cause of water pollution in Ireland is still nutrient enrichment, resulting mainly from agricultural run-off and discharges from town sewage plants. Among the key findings of the review are:

The number of seriously polluted river sites was down to 20 – just half that seen in 2004-2006.

The number of fish kills was also down, with 72 incidents reported in 2007-2009 compared with 120 incidents in the previous three-year period.

Some 90 per cent of lakes were of good quality but 25 lakes were still classed as “poor” or “bad” – mainly due to excess phosphates causing algal blooms. Some 15 were in Cavan and Monaghan.

Some 15 per cent of estuaries were classed as eutrophic (rich in nutrients and so capable of supporting dense plant life) or potentially eutrophic.

Some 85 per cent of groundwater examined was in satisfactory condition – but there was an upward trend in the detection of faecal coliforms.

Micheál Ó Cinnéide, director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Assessment, said in comparison with other EU member states, “Ireland has better than average water quality”. But he said “further actions are essential if we are to achieve our water quality targets for 2015 and 2021 as required by the water framework directive”.

Mr Ó Cinnéide said a key development on the road to meeting EU targets had been publication of the river basin management plans, including the setting of objectives for individual water bodies to meet EU requirements.

The three challenges for water quality management were “firstly, eliminating serious pollution associated with point sources, that is, waste water 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”.

The review noted significant improvements to water quality where town sewage plants had been installed in recent years – such as Sligo and the Garavogue estuary.

Commenting on the report, Irish Farmers’ Association president John Bryan said he welcomed significant improvement in the level of nitrates and phosphates during the period 2007-2009.

He said: “This is clear evidence that the investment of €2.5 billion on farms in recent years is having an impact on water quality.”

The full report is available on