Water Quality in Ireland Report 2007 - 2009

Date released: Feb 23 2011

Improvements in Ireland’s Water Quality welcomed by EPA.
However, extensive measures are needed to meet water quality Targets

The latest report on water quality in Ireland by the EPA has found evidence of improvements in water quality in Ireland, though continued actions across a range of sectors are needed if Ireland is to achieve its European water quality obligations.

The report, Water Quality in Ireland 2007 – 2009, is a comprehensive review which covers 13,118 km of river and stream channel (1,700 rivers), 222 lakes, 89 estuarine and coastal waterbodies and 211 groundwater monitoring stations. 

In rivers, 70% of channel is in good condition, but measures are needed to restore the quality of the 30% that was found to be polluted. The number of seriously polluted river sites was down to 20 – half that seen in 2004-2006. Increased investment in wastewater treatment has helped to eliminate some of this serious pollution. The number of fish kills was significantly down on previous periods, with 72 incidents reported in 2007-2009, compared with 120 incidents in the previous 3 year period.

Lakes are generally in good condition with over 90% of lake area in satisfactory condition, but 25 lakes were still in poor or bad status – mainly due to excess phosphates causing algal blooms.

Of the estuaries assessed, 85% were unpolluted, while 15 % were classed as eutrophic or potentially eutrophic. In terms of area, approximately 5% of tidal areas was polluted. Some significant improvements were noted where new wastewater treatment plants had been installed recently – such as Sligo and the Garavogue estuary.

Monitoring of groundwaters showed a significant drop in the overall concentration of phosphates and nitrates during the period - 85% of groundwaters were in satisfactory condition - but there was an upward trend in the detection of faecal coliforms – apparently due to increased rainfall in the period.

Launching the report, Micheal Ó Cinneide, Director, EPA Office of Environmental Assessment, said:

“In comparison with other EU member States, Ireland has better than average water quality. While there is evidence of an overall improvement in water quality in Ireland, further actions are essential if we are to achieve our water quality targets for 2015 and 2021 as required by the Water Framework Directive. The EPA will work with the network of local authorities, with sectoral groups and other agencies in tackling the water quality challenges.”

A key development in the last three years has been the publication of the River Basin Management Plans, including the setting of objectives for waterbodies and the selection of Programmes of Measures to meet the objectives of the Water Framework Directive.

The principal and most widespread cause of water pollution in Ireland is nutrient enrichment resulting in the eutrophication of rivers, lakes and tidal waters from agricultural run-off and discharges from municipal waste water treatment plants.  Following the enactment of the Waste Water Discharges Regulations 2007, the EPA set up a licensing and certification regime for municipal waste water discharges, to reduce the pollution of waters by placing strict conditions on the quality of waste water discharges. The latest EPA survey shows that the investments under the Water Services programme have led to improvements in water quality.

According to Martin McGarrigle, who has a lead role in the Aquatic Environment monitoring programme in the Environmental Protection Agency,

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

Overall, 85% of groundwater bodies were of good status in accordance with the Water Framework Directive (WFD) process. Pollution of groundwater has decreased somewhat in this period with reductions in nitrate and phosphate concentrations. While the above average rainfall has played a role, it is likely that implementation of the Good Agricultural Practices Regulations and, in particular, the increase in farm storage for manure and slurry, and the reduced usage of inorganic fertilizers have been beneficial.

Donal Daly, head of the Groundwater programme in EPA, said:

“Further improvements in groundwater quality are required for both environmental and public health reasons. Key measures should include the optimal application by farmers of organic and inorganic fertilizers at times and in a manner that minimises leaching, and householders ensuring that their on-site wastewater treatment systems, such as septic tanks, are located, constructed and maintained properly.”

The report Water Quality in Ireland 2007 – 2009 is available at on the EPA website and from EPA Publication Sales, McCumiskey House, Richview, Dublin 16. Telephone 01-2680100. 


Further information: Niamh Hatchell/Emily Williamson, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours).

Summary Findings

Groundwaters (i.e. the water beneath the surface of the ground)

  • 85% of groundwater bodies were classed as good status and 15% as poor.
  • There was a general reduction in phosphate and nitrate concentrations compared to the previous period. However, the nitrate drinking water limit was exceeded in 50 (2%) of samples taken from the national groundwater network.
  • Positive faecal coliform counts were detected in 35% of water samples taken during this period.
  • The main sources of pollution which contributed to the poor status groundwater bodies and polluted wells were farming activities and on-site wastewater treatment systems, such as septic tanks.

Rivers & Streams

  • The overall trend in Irish rivers and stream quality is steady, with 69% of river channels classed as unpolluted. This figure has remained close to 70% Class A (unpolluted) for the past two decades
  • Serious pollution in rivers and streams has reduced further to 52.5 km (0.4% of surveyed channel length), its lowest level in recent decades.
  • The number of seriously polluted sites has halved to 20
  • A marked reduction in the number of fish kills was recorded, from 122 in the previous period down to 72.
  • The available data indicate that the levels of potentially dangerous substances such as pesticides and herbicides are generally insignificant in water.


  • The proportion of lakes with an overall satisfactory water quality was 81%, which is on a par with the previous reporting periods.
  • A total of 25 lakes are in poor or bad status, based on WFD classification; 15 of these are located in counties Cavan and Monaghan.
  • Three of the nine designated fresh water bathing areas (all of which are situated on lakes) failed to achieve compliance with the EU mandatory standards.

Estuaries and Coastal Waters

  • The results of the latest assessment shows an improvement in overall water quality compared with previous assessments, in particular where waste water treatment plants have been upgraded, e.g., the Garavogue estuary in Sligo.
  • Of the 89 tidal areas assessed for trophic status, 85% were classed as intermediate or unpolluted, while 15 % were classed as eutrophic or potentially eutrophic.
  • Areas which continue to be affected by eutrophication include: inner Dundalk Bay, the Broadmeadow estuary (Co. Dublin), the lower Slaney, upper Barrow, Argideen (Co. Cork), Bandon and Tralee estuaries.
  • Levels of organic enrichment have declined with the current assessment indicating a considerable improvement on previous assessments.
  • This improvement is most likely the result of improved waste water treatment of discharges to coastal waters.
  • Levels of contaminants in fish and shellfish remained low and the quality of Irish seafood produce remains high.
  • The vast majority of bathing areas achieved ‘sufficient’ water quality status over the assessment period. However, a number of areas, including Clifden, (Co. Galway) and Balbriggan (Co. Dublin), are consistently classified as poor.
  • Further measures including the provision of appropriate waste water treatment is required if all bathing waters are to comply with EU standards.
  • A substantial proportion of estuaries and coastal waters are at risk of not achieving the objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive by 2015. This highlights the need for the implementation of measures to reduce the risk of these waters failing to meet their objectives.
  • The Irish Coast Guard received 152 reports of pollution in the period, with mineral oils comprising the bulk (84 percent) of the polluting material observed, with diesel and gas oils most commonly identified. In the majority of cases the identity of the vessels could not be established.

Water Framework Directive

The Directive has been a core element of Irish law since 2003. Its main requirements include:

  • the attainment of good quality in all waters by 2015 or in some areas, 2021,
  • the management of waters on a River Basin District (RBD) basis,
  • the elimination of the discharge of certain harmful substances to waters and 
  • the sustainable use of water resources.

Good progress was made in the period with the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. New monitoring programmes for surface and groundwaters were made operational in 2007. Each of the seven River Basin Districts published their Management plans in 2010, which set out objectives for waterbodies and the range of measures to ensure achieving the Water Framework Directives targets.

 The EPA has a key role in coordinating of the work of a range of agencies in delivering the WFD tasks.