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Lough Gill from Hazlewood Forest Recreation area in the early evening, Sligo, County Sligo. Alamy Stock Photo

No signs of improvement in quality of Irish lakes, estuaries and groundwaters

Environmental groups are calling for stronger Government measures to tackle pollution.


THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency (EPA) has said that there are no signs of improvement in Ireland’s water quality and more action is needed in a new indicators report. 

The water quality in our lakes, estuaries and groundwaters did not improve in 2023, and the small improvements that were recorded were offset by declines elsewhere due to nutrient pollution caused by agriculture and wastewater. 

The average nitrate levels in our waters remains unchanged and too high in the east, southeast and south, the EPA said.

It further found that average phosphorus levels remain too high in over one quarter of rivers and one third of lakes. 

Too much nitrogen in water bodies can lead to the overgrowth of plants and algae that can then displace other flora and fauna, and lead to oxygen depletion which damages the ecology of water bodies.

Nitrate concentrations above the drinking water standard can also pose a risk to human health, in particular for young children. 

Similarly, too much phosphorus can cause overgrowth and disturb ecosystems. Phosphorus levels are of real concern when it comes to the health of rivers and lakes.  

Dr Eimear Cotter, the Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment said that it is “disappointing” that water quality is not improving. 

“The quality of our water bodies will not improve until nutrient levels are reduced in areas where they are elevated,” she said.

She called for full compliance with good agricultural practice and for actions to reduce losses of nutrients from agriculture into water systems.

In response to comments on agticultural practices, IFA President Francie Gorman said there is a “relentless focus among farmers to make changes to improve water quality”.

However, he criticised what he called delays on the part of the DAFM to approve grants as well as planning delays that are preventing individual famers from taking initiatives.

“We must remove these roadblocks and ensure that farmers can move quickly to make capital investments.” 

Aside from agricultural practices, Dr Cotter also said that the EPA needed to see “an acceleration in the pace at which Uisce Éireann is delivering improvements in wastewater infrastructure”.

Reacting to the report, the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) – an umbrella organisation representing 25 local environmental groups – called on the Government to put in place “far stronger measures” to address the problem. 

Sinéad O’Brien, SWAN Coordinator, said the report flags the “ongoing failure of the government to address our water crisis and to stem the tide of water pollution.”

“This shows that current measures to tackle pollution for intensive livestock farming are not working here and we need strong additional measures such as nutrient restrictions based on the carrying capacity of these already nutrient-saturated catchments and risk-assessments for intensive farms, with a licensing system similar to pigs and poultry farms to protect vulnerable rivers and estuaries,” she further said. 

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