EPA Water Quality Report 2013 – 2018

The publication of the EPA water quality report every five years is always big news in the Irish water world and this year Water Quality in Ireland 2013-2018 reported shocking, though not entirely unexpected findings. After gradual improvements since the 1980s, the trend in water quality has taken a significant turn for the worse. Despite the requirement of the EU Water Framework Directive that all our rivers, lakes and coastal waters should be ecologically healthy by 2027, the report finds that:
  • Almost half of our rivers and lakes are in an unhealthy state (47% and 50% respectively)
  • River water quality has gotten worse since the last assessment, with a decline of 5.5%
  • There’s a continued loss of our pristine river water bodies.  There are now just 20 of these special places left – down from over 500 in the late 1980s
  • The number of seriously polluted river sites has started to rise again – from 6 to 9 – after years of improvements

From a legal point of view this is non-compliant with the water directive’s requirement that ‘no deterioration’ in our water environment is permitted. But this decline is about far more than the law. All around the country there is emerging community interest in local rivers and lakes, with new rivers trusts and catchment associations being established from Donegal to Mayo and Limerick; multiple Blueways are also being established to encourage water recreation and activities; and there is an increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity and the natural environment for our very survival. Polluted or unhealthy rivers, lakes and bays threaten not only the animals and plants that call them home, but they also threaten the large amount of individuals and communities that utilise the water environment for their wellbeing and their livelihood.

This news of water quality decline comes at a time of unprecedented state investment in water science and management through the EPA Catchment Science and Management Unit and the Water & Communities Office, with more than 60 new staff engaging with the public and conducting scientific assessments of catchments to determine solutions. So we must ask why the decline, despite all this good work?  What’s gone wrong? The EPA report provides some early answers to this question. The most significant change in Government policy since the last water quality report is in agriculture. According to the report, most of the pollution is caused by nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) and “Since 2013 nitrogen emissions to water have increased as both cattle numbers and fertilizer use have increased.” The report further cautions, “the increase in nutrient concentrations, which coincide with areas impacted by agricultural activities, are a particular concern.” This link can be seen in Map 4.2 of the report where hot-spots of winter exceedances of nitrogen can be seen in areas of the south coast where intensification of dairy has been greatest.

Further details and explanation for water quality decline will become available in spring 2020 when the EPA publishes its detailed catchment characterisation, but in the meantime SWAN echoes the EPA’s call that “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.”  This should involve a robust and fully transparent review of the sustainability of the nitrates derogation and indeed a complete re-think of the current intensive model of Irish agriculture.