Can science solve Ireland’s water problem?

Academic researchers, with the help of the public, are providing valuable data on water quality but say it is vital that policy-makers get involved to bring about necessary change

Ireland is back in the dock. The Environmental Protection Agency recently found waste-water facilities do not comply with EU standards in 50 of Ireland's 185 towns and cities, and that raw and untreated sewage is discharged into the environment in 44 urban locations every day. Irish Water estimates it will cost €18 billion to rectify the issues. Meanwhile, the European Commission is taking Ireland to court over our water quality.

What if the solutions lie on our own doorstep? "Science has the potential to solve our water problems," says Prof Fiona Regan, director of the DCU Water Institute. She leads a team of more than 30 researchers working on water-related research, exploring flooding, water quality, access to safe drinking water, sewerage and waste-water treatment, energy efficiency and water sustainability.

“We bring together engineers, chemists, biologists, computer scientists and physicists to look at solving specific problems and we work with scientists from around the world,” says Prof Regan. “We have had projects looking at chemical contaminants, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products from the water. The results from those projects affect how we treat water and how we manage run-off from land and roads.”

DCU doesn't have the field to itself, however. Trinity College hosts an engineering-focused water technology research group. Researchers at both UCD's Earth Sciences Institute and its Dooge Centre for Water Resources Research also tackle water problems. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is committing €1.68 million towards new water research projects over the next three years; the agency has already funded almost 200 projects since 2000 and it coordinates a water research group which brings together experts from the EPA, HSE, Irish Water, Departments of Agriculture in both jurisdictions on the island, Met Éireann and other stakeholders and funders to share information and knowledge.

“There are different reasons for the decline in high-status waters,” says Dr Alice Wemaere, research manager with the EPA. “Many of them are to do with land-use changes including forestry, physical disturbances, agriculture, peat harvesting and drainage works. The causes of decline tend to be site-specific, can involve more than one pressure and require assessments at local level to work out the best approach for protection and improvement.”

Blue Dot

One new project is the proposed “Blue Dot Catchments Programme” from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government’s draft river basin management plans. Supported by the EPA, Blue Dot will be a network of river and lake catchments that scientists, engineers and citizens aim to protect and restore to high ecological status. “The aim is to create awareness and promote best practice to protect our highest-quality waters,” Dr Wemaere explains.

Increasingly, water researchers are relying on citizen science to help them gather data. In Dublin, the Dodder River Action Group is made up of volunteers who clean up the river, monitor it and report their results through UCD and DCU's citizen science initiatives. Around Irish coastlines, meanwhile, citizens are taking pictures of beaches and waterways as well as collecting water samples to identify microplastics (including the microbeads found in many cosmetics which are contaminating our waterways).

“These are local citizens taking pride in their local water bodies and engaging with scientists to see what is happening,” says Prof Regan. “The results are obtained through an agreed method, so it is scientifically robust, and it is providing really valuable information that we might not always get through a standard monitoring approach.”

Prof Regan says it is vital that all of this research connects with policy makers who can bring about change. "Academics publish in high-impact journals but we need to talk to the right people in the right agencies from the outset of these projects, including in the HSE for health, the Office of Public Works for Flooding, the Marine Institute for coastal and transitional waters and the EPA for the Water Framework Directive."

Communicating the value of safe, clean water and its importance for human health is vital, she says. “We need to connect with consumers and the general public. They have already been instrumental in pushing for an end to micro-plastics in toothpaste and cosmetics. Knowing the health risks associated with certain chemicals in plastics would help them make decisions about buying items in plastic packaging or containers.”

Ireland’s water quality is still quite good but down from where it was, says Prof Regan. “The EU’s Water Framework Directive looks to bring it back to 1990 standards. Irish Water has a massive task and, without getting into the politics around it, we do need a single water utility. But in the debate around charges, there’s still no discussion about water conservation. Until we start to talk about this, we are not properly valuing water.”

Panel: Water research projects

Antimicrobial resistance: This is a growing international problem and one which threatens the very future of modern medicine: if the antibiotics stop working, minor surgeries could become fatal and once-curable diseases could make a comeback. One new EPA project, co-funded by the HSE, is assessing the contributions of various sectors to the impact and persistence of antimicrobial resistance in the environment and the development of solutions to halt further spread.

Saltgae: algae – friend or foe? This project, led by Dr Yan Delauré of the DCU Water Institute with 18 international research partners, is growing algae to extract excess salts from briny waters produced by the food and drink industry. More than 15,000 European companies are obliged to remove these salts in order to prevent environmental damage, but it can consume up to 14 per cent of the company's turnover. A cheaper process will increase compliance and save money. Saltgae is funded through the EU's H2020 framework programme.

Best foot forward: Trinity academics Dr Jennifer Brady and Prof Nick Gray of the Trinity Centre for the Environment have published extensive research on a number of water topics. One of the most significant looks at the pressures and deficiencies of Ireland's water services in the context of Irish Water's establishment, notably to assesses what went wrong in its formation. It is also charting the best course for a public water utility based on scientific evidence.

Cypermethrin: This chemical is used as a pesticide in forestry and as a treatment for maggots in sheep. If it reaches water ways, it can be a serious pollutant. The DCU Water Institute has been using a passive sampling method to monitor cypermethrin in water and the findings will inform future forestry and farming practices in Ireland.