EPA warns Ireland’s water quality is not improving

12 Jun 2024

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The report warns that a significant number of Ireland’s bodies of water have too much nitrogen and phosphate – which can lead to algae growth and harm fish populations.

A new report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that, overall, there was no significant change in Ireland’s water quality last year and that nutrient pollution levels are too high in a large portion of our water bodies.

This comes from the EPA’s latest water quality indicators report, which examines the key indicators of the quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal and groundwaters using monitoring data collected in 2023.

This report warns that the biological health of Ireland’s rivers and lakes had small net declines last year. The EPA said that some improvements are being made, but that these are being offset by declines elsewhere.

Nitrogen pollution remains a significant issue in the east, south-east and south of the country, according to the report. Too much nitrogen can lead to significant growth in algae, which can harm water quality and decrease oxygen which fish need to survive. The EPA report says 42pc per cent of river sites and 20pc of groundwater sites have nitrogen levels that are unsatisfactory. The EPA attributed this issue primarily to intensive agricultural activities on freely draining soils in these areas.

There are also high levels of phosphate in a significant portion of our rivers and lakes, which can lead to similar algae issues. Phosphorus entering water sites is largely associated with poorly treated wastewater and run-off from agricultural lands with poorly draining soils, the EPA said.

Dr Eimear Cotter, director of the EPA’s office of evidence and assessment, said the result is “disappointing” and that measures to address water quality are “not being implemented at the scale or pace required”.

“The quality of our water bodies will not improve until nutrient levels are reduced in areas where they are elevated,” Cotter said. “It is essential that there is full compliance with the Good Agricultural Practice Regulations and that actions to reduce losses of nutrients from agriculture are targeted to where they are needed.

“We also need to see an acceleration in the pace at which Uisce Éireann is delivering improvements in wastewater infrastructure.”

Irish water quality has been an issue for years, as an EPA report using 2018 data found that only 53pc of surface waters in Ireland had satisfactory water quality.

Just yesterday (11 June), there were reports of at least 5,000 fish being killed in the River Allow in Co Cork due to a pollution incident. Inland Fisheries Ireland is investigating what it described as “a major fish kill” in a special area of conservation. RTÉ reports that Uisce Éireann has a water treatment plant in the area and is investigating a reported spillage.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic