Water Quality in Ireland 2006

Date released: Oct 12 2007

Water Quality in Ireland 2006 - Key Indicators of the Aquatic Environment

Improvement in River and Lake Water Quality - But Poorer Quality in Some Groundwaters

The EPA report, Water Quality in Ireland 2006, summarising the most recent national water quality monitoring results shows:
· 71 per cent of river channel length and 92 per cent of lake surface area examined were of satisfactory water quality.
·  19 per cent of estuarine/coastal water bodies examined were eutrophic (over-enriched) while 3 per cent were potentially eutrophic.
· 57 per cent of the groundwater sampling locations were contaminated by faecal coliforms.
· Approximately 25 per cent of the groundwater locations examined exceeded the national guideline value for nitrate concentration for drinking water and two per cent breaching the mandatory limit.
· The overall quality of the bathing waters in Ireland remains very good.
· The number of fish kills, while reduced compared to 2005, remains at an unacceptably high level.

The EPA will today presented Mr John Gormley, T.D., Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with the Water Quality in Ireland 2006 report.  The summary indicator report was presented to him during his first visit as Minister to EPA Headquarters in Wexford.

The report presents the latest data available in Ireland on the eleven most relevant and significant indicators of water quality.  The value of this report is that it delivers timely, scientifically sound information on water quality to decision and policy makers in particular, as well as to the wider general public.  The statistics, summarising the monitoring results for surface and groundwaters for the period 2004 – 2006, show that a high percentage of Ireland’s waters was of a satisfactory standard in 2006.

“Ireland has an abundant supply of fresh water, although not evenly distributed across the country.  The quality of this resource is vital, as we depend on surface and groundwaters for our drinking water” said Dr Mary Kelly, Director General, EPA. “Water is also crucial as a habitat for freshwater and marine plants and animals and as an amenity for all of us to enjoy”.

Key Findings:
The trends in the data indicate a further increase in the extent of satisfactory water quality in rivers and lakes compared with the previous assessment.  Nevertheless, there remains an unacceptable and sizeable level of water pollution in the country.  29 per cent of river channel length, 8 per cent of lake surface area and over 22 per cent of the estuarine/coastal water bodies examined are in a condition that will require remedial measures to restore these waters to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive. The level of bacterial and nutrient contamination in our groundwaters is increasing and the number of fish kills in our rivers remains unacceptably high.

Commenting on the publication of the report, Dr Mary Kelly said, “Eutrophication of rivers, lakes and tidal waters continues to be the main threat to surface waters, with agricultural and municipal discharges being the key contributors.  Although improvements in river and lake water quality are observed in the latest figures, there are differences across the country.  Groundwater shows a trend of decline in water quality, as do estuarine and coastal waters and shellfish waters.  It should be noted that this report covers the quality of groundwater prior to any treatment that would occur where groundwater is abstracted for drinking water.  Although water extracted from groundwater sources is treated before being used in public supplies, increased contamination puts further pressure on drinking water treatment plants.  More stringent protection of groundwater resources is now urgently required.”

Dr Kelly continued, “The challenge, under the Water Framework Directive is to protect our high status waters and have all waters, both surface and groundwater, in good or higher status by 2015. The recorded annual incremental improvement in water quality based on that occurring between 2005-2006 (and indeed for the three year period since 2004) would, if maintained, still leave Ireland potentially falling short of the Water Framework Directive target in the time left for remediation. Urban waste water treatment discharge licensing, nutrient management and catchment management need to be tackled immediately.”

This Water Quality in Ireland 2006 report deals with 13,200km of river and stream channel, 421 lakes, 69 tidal water bodies (from 21 estuarine and coastal areas) and 285 groundwater sources. As well as giving the present situation, regarding the state of the aquatic resource, the report also includes analyses of trends over time. Only by including historical information can improvement or deterioration be discerned and programmes of measures for remediation instituted.

The report is available on the EPA website at
http://www.epa.ie/downloads/pubs/water/indicators/ or from the EPA’s
Publications’ Office, McCumiskey House, Richview, Dublin 14 on 01-2680100.

Report Findings

Surface Waters

Rivers. The proportion of river and stream channel length with an overall satisfactory water quality status has again increased in the latest 2004 – 2006 period (to 71.4%) compared to the previous period of assessment 2003-2005 (70.2%). There was a reduction (-1.1%) in the moderately polluted channel length. The overall proportion of slightly and seriously polluted channel length has remained unchanged between the two periods.
Loading of Phosphate and Nitrate, in excess of background levels, is the principal pressure on surface waters in Ireland leading to eutrophication. Concentrations of both these nutrients in 11 large rivers showed differences across the country with notably higher levels in the southeast and south.
Nine of these rivers have considerably increased nitrate levels in 2006 as compared with when first sampled in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
The increase in nitrate values has coincided with the demise of the pollution-sensitive pearl mussel in some rivers.
While phosphate concentrations are declining from their peak levels of some 20 years ago, only five of these eleven rivers would achieve the target set in the Phosphorus regulations.

Lakes. The percentage of lake surface area with satisfactory water quality status has also increased in the 2004 – 2006 period (91.9 %) compared to the previous period of assessment 2003-2005 (89.9%).

Of the 449 lakes assessed, water quality in 66 of these was less than satisfactory, with 15 lakes classified as being highly polluted.

Fish Kills. There were 34 fish kills recorded in 2006, which were attributed largely to activities associated with local authority services and agriculture. The number of instances of these events remains at an unacceptably high level.

Estuarine and Coastal Waters. The overall quality in the 69 water bodies from 21 estuarine and coastal areas examined in 2002-2006 showed a decline in the number of water bodies being classified as unpolluted and an increase in the numbers showing evidence of enrichment.

Data from the Marine Institute’s winter nutrient monitoring programme, in coastal waters of the western Irish Sea and southern Celtic Sea, indicate no instances of excessive nutrient enrichment in these waters.

The quality of shellfish waters showed a marked decline in 2006 compared to the previous year with a reduction in the percentage of those waters assessed to be of the highest quality for the purpose of shellfish production from 30 to 25 percent.

A further improvement was recorded in the number of reported pollution at sea incidents from 46 in 2005 to 44 in 2006. These events were attributed to oil spillages (77 per cent) and other substances (23 per cent), e.g. algae or unidentified blooms. Diesel and gas oils were the most frequently identified polluting substances.
Bathing water. The overall quality at the 131 bathing waters in Ireland remains very good in 2006 showing little change from 2005.


Bacterial contamination. In Ireland, groundwater is a significant source of drinking water supply. The presence of faecal coliforms in groundwater is taken as evidence of faecal contamination and provides an indication that pathogens (disease-causing organisms) may be present.

The number of groundwater samples and sampling locations showing bacteriological contamination, in the period 2004 – 2006, showed an increase for the first time since 1995. Approximately 29 per cent of the 1591 samples of groundwater taken between 2004-2006 showed bacteriological (faecal coliform) contamination, with some 13 per cent of samples being grossly contaminated. The groundwater monitoring locations in karst limestone areas appear to show the greatest degree of contamination, because pollutants can move more freely through fissures in the underlying rocks.

Nitrates. Approximately one quarter of the groundwater locations examined exceeded the national guideline value for nitrate concentration for drinking water in the period 2004 – 2006. This represents an increase of 2 percent from the 2001 – 2003 reporting period. Two per cent of locations breached the mandatory limit, the same as previously.

While elevated nitrate concentrations were recorded in monitoring points close to potential point source waste discharges; however, the greater number of monitoring locations with elevated nitrate concentrations appear to relate to areas with more intensive agricultural practices, which suggests that diffuse, agricultural sources are the cause.