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Water quality in almost half of Ireland's rivers and lakes deemed unsatisfactory

Many rivers and estuaries in the south and east are under pressure from excess nitrogen from agricultural activities, the EPA said.

The River Shannon.
The River Shannon.
Image: Shutterstock/Kwiatek7

THE QUALITY OF just under half of Ireland’s lakes and rivers is deemed to be unsatisfactory, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA is an independent body responsible for policing and protecting the environment from negative or harmful influences – including Ireland’s forests, beaches and waters.

It has published its report ‘Water Quality in 2020′, which provides an assessment of the quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwaters.

The report concludes that over half of Ireland’s rivers and lakes are in “satisfactory” biological quality, which means that a large number are unable to sustain healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants.

It found that 43% of rivers are still of unsatisfactory quality, with a decline in water quality in 230 rivers nationally, while 44% of Ireland’s lakes are of “unsatisfactory biological quality” – which is in line with previous years.

57% (1,336) of the river water bodies assessed over the period 2017-2020 were of high or good biological quality. The remaining 43% (1,019) were of moderate, poor or bad quality. The number of river water bodies in bad condition has reduced to two.

River quality Source: EPA Water Quality

There are now 585 river sites classified as high quality; this represents an increase of
101 sites in this category. The majority of the rivers of the highest quality are situated in clusters near the coast in the west, southwest and southeast.

Over half (56%) of monitored lakes are of high or good biological quality for the period 2018-2020 with the remaining 44% of moderate or worse quality.

Ten lakes (4%) are of bad biological quality, the worst class, for 2018-2020. The majority of lakes that are failing to achieve good biological quality are in the Erne and Upper Shannon Catchments, areas with predominantly elevated phosphorus levels.

Lake quality Source: EPA Water Quality

The proportion of lakes at satisfactory quality (high and good) has remained relatively unchanged in recent years.

The majority of these lakes are situated along the western half of Ireland and not subjected to the same phosphorus loadings as lakes in the northeast.

The EPA said that high nutrient levels, such as phosphorus and nitrogen which come from human activities, are the main threat to water quality.

These excess nutrients come primarily from agriculture and waste water.

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map nitrate Source: EPA Water Quality

Almost half of Ireland’s rivers (47%), a quarter of our groundwaters (24%) and one fifth of our estuarine and coastal water bodies (21%) have nitrogen levels that are too high, the report concluded.

Many rivers, groundwaters and estuaries in the south, southeast and east of Ireland are under pressure from excess nitrogen from agricultural activities, the EPA said.

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“These nutrients, in excessive concentrations, can lead to the over-growth of plants and algae that outcompete and displace other flora and fauna.

“This over-growth can also cause oxygen depletion and damage the ecology of our water bodies. High nitrate values in our drinking water supplies pose a risk to human health.”

EPA Director of Evidence and Assessment, Dr Eimear Cotter said that nitrogen pollution from agriculture was causing particular pressure in parts of the south, southeast and east of the country.

Rivers such as the Bandon, Lee, Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow and Slaney have nitrogen levels that are too high with significant implications for the marine environments they flow into. 

“If we do not substantially reduce nitrogen inputs to our rivers, and ultimately our marine environment, we are in danger of further deterioration in water quality and losing our excellent coastal water quality.”

The report is available on the EPA website and the accompanying data used in the water quality assessments are available on www.catchments.ie.

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