A new report on Water Quality in Ireland by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an evaluation of the ecological health of the country’s water bodies against the objectives set out in the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the National River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021. The assessment is based on data from 2,703 surface waters (rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters) and 514 groundwater bodies, for the period 2013- 2018.
The results show 52.8% of the surface water bodies studied are in satisfactory ecological health, meaning they have a good or high ecological status as per the WFD, down from 55.4% for the last assessment period of 2010-2015, a 2.6% decrease. Groundwater bodies fare better: 92% were found to be in good chemical and quantitative status, a 1% improvement over the previous assessment period.
Overall, there has been a net decline in the status of surface water bodies, which amounts to 117 water bodies or 4.4%, almost entirely driven by the decline in rivers.
The report also reveals a loss of the highest quality river waters, important reservoirs of aquatic biodiversity. The number of high-status ‘reference condition’ sites (Q5) went from 13.4% of sites for the 1987-1990 period, to 0.7% in 2016-2018. The director of the EPA, Matt Crowe, said Ireland is not only failing to improve overall water quality but also failing to prevent the further deterioration of rivers, reports the Irish Times. As of 2018, only 20 river sites have pristine conditions, compared with more than 500 in the 1980s.
The decline in water quality, and specially river water quality, indicates an increase in pressures from anthropogenic activity. According to the report, the main pressures are:
- agriculture (affecting 53% of water bodies)
- discharges from urban and domestic waste water treatment systems (affecting 29% of water bodies)
- hydromorphological alterations that change the flow and structure of water bodies (affecting 24% of water bodies) and
- forestry (affecting 16% of water bodies).
The main problem identified is nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorous) from agricultural sources and waste water discharges. The report concludes: ‘A new sense of urgency is now needed to address the issues effecting water quality particularly in relation to agriculture and other land management practices which are key drivers behind the recent increases in nitrates and phosphorus that we are seeing in our rivers and lakes and the increasing inputs of these nutrients to our marine environment.’