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Only half of Irish rivers and lakes able to sustain healthy ecosystems for fish and insects

The decrease in water quality is mostly caused by agricultural activities, particularly on the southeast and southern coasts

THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency (EPA) has found that Ireland will fail to meet the EU and national goal of restoring all waters to ‘good’ status by 2027 if progress doesn’t improve.

The agency published the Water Quality in Ireland Report 2016-2021 today, which found that the overall ecological health of Ireland’s surface waters has declined across all water body types since the last assessment from 2013 to 2018.

These rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal and groundwaters are less able to support healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants.

Just over half of surface waters are in satisfactory condition.

The number of estuaries and coastal water bodies in satisfactory condition has decreased by almost 16% and 10% respectively.

There was also a 1% decline in the number of rivers that were deemed to be in satisfactory condition and a 3% decline in lakes.

These declines are mostly along the southeast and southern coasts where nitrogen emissions from agricultural activities are having a significant negative impact on water quality.

This can lead to run-off of nutrients, sediment and pesticides and damage to the physical habitat of waterbodies.

Excess nitrogen causes algal blooms in estuaries which can damage the ecosystem, and excess nitrogen in drinking water can pose a risk to human health.

Last month Waterford City and County Council said it would review its use of chlorine as a ‘disinfectant’ on streams near some of its popular beaches, following outcry over the practice.

The council was told to submit a report on its use of chlorine to the EPA.

The council also claimed that it has not carried out any environmental assessments of the use of sodium hypochlorite – a bleaching chemical – because it is taking place outside of the Waterford Estuary’s special conservation area.

Commenting on today’s report, the director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment Dr Eimear Cotter, said:

“The scale of the declines in our estuaries and coastal waters is alarming. In recent years the EPA highlighted that nutrient levels in our rivers and groundwaters are too high and that trends were going in the wrong direction.”

“We are now seeing the impact of these emissions on our estuaries and coastal waters. Areas such as Cork Harbour, Wexford Harbour and the Slaney, Suir and Nore estuaries have lost their good water quality status.

“This directly impacts the marine biodiversity and ecological value in these areas”.

The number of waterbodies impacted by urban wastewater remains high, but it is decreasing.

The number of waterbodies impacted by agriculture has, however, increased in recent years.

The EPA is calling for urgent and targeted action to protect and restore water quality in the next River Basin Management Plan (2022-2027).

The National Water Forum, the statutory national stakeholder body for water quality, believes that it is “now essential that the Government identify targeted actions for each and every waterbody in Ireland, in an outcomes-based approach that will protect current status or improve it where necessary”.  

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