Structure of the Report

In 2011, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published, WATER QUALITY IN IRELAND 2007-2009 which Report provides the data and assessment for the quality of water bodies in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) for the three-year period of 2007-2009.  The water bodies include groundwater, rivers, canals, lakes, estuarine and coastal waters.  The results presented throughout are complicated by the fact that two different sets of criteria are applied.  Traditionally, the condition of water bodies was assessed by examining the quality of the water, using chemical and/or biological criteria.  Such criteria was used to evaluate organic pollution or eutrophication from sewage, farming, or mining facilities.

With the introduction of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), a new broader approach is required.  Under the WFD, it is the status of the water bodies, rather than just their quality, that is assessed.  River Basin Districts (RBD) within each Member State are identified and then each water body within the RBD is classified for ecological status — applying biological quality elements, hydromorphological elements and physico-chemical elements — and for chemical status — applied to over 30 priority substances.  Based on the assessments, most water bodies are classified as High, Good, Moderate, Poor or Bad; groundwater is classified as either Good or Poor.  The category “High” represents conditions associated with no or very low human pressure and the other categories represent deviations from this “reference condition.” (Note 1)

The EPA continues to apply the older criteria to compare present and past conditions using the same criteria. Once the WFD requirements take full effect in 2015, by which time there will have been a number of years of sampling results applying the WFD criteria, it is not clear whether EPA will continue with the older assessment classifications.

The WFD requires Member States to achieve “good” status for water bodies by 2015.  (Note 2)  The current assessments, then, indicate how close, or far away, from such a status are the various water bodies under the new broader criteria, providing a sense of what else has to be done.  The WFD is a complicated scheme and a fuller discussion of it is offered in the current iePEDIA section of irish environment.  


Groundwater is an important source for drinking water, with 26% of public and private drinking water supplies in the RoI dependent on groundwater, and up to 75% in certain counties, such as Roscommon.  It is also important as a contributor to rivers and lakes and other surface water bodies where the groundwater discharges.  Some rivers get more than 30% of their flow from groundwater, and in areas of very productive aquifers the groundwater can contribute up to 80-90% of the surface flow.  

Using the WFD criteria applied to River Basin Districts (RBD), almost 85% of groundwater is classified as Good and 15% as Poor.  Other analyses are not so positive.

The WFD sampling does not include faecal coliform bacteria and when this parameter was assessed under the older system almost 35% of samples (945 out of 2,718) were contaminated with the bacteria.  That represents an increase over the last sampling period.  It is difficult to read the Figures in the Report to get a precise comparison but it appears that there may have been about a 5% increase since 2004-2006.  The Report suggests that the increase is a function of changes in the groundwater monitoring network, which resulted in the inclusion of more locations that were vulnerable to contamination.  This answer is not well documented in the Report itself.

The Report stresses that levels of nitrates and phosphates concentrations have dropped since the last reporting period of 2004-2006, and that these lower levels are attributed to increased rainfall, reductions in usage of inorganic fertilizer, improvements in organic fertilizer storage, and implementation of land-spreading restrictions.

While the levels may have decreased recently, the Report also makes it clear that the nitrate and phosphate levels are elevated and in some water bodies, including at Durrow, Laois, and Ballyheigue, Kerry, they exhibit an upward trend in concentration.  For example, the Threshold Value (TV) for nitrate is 37.5 mg/l NO3, and at Durrow and Ballyheigue the trend in nitrate levels has been upward since 2000, reaching over 50 mg/l NO3. (Note 3)  Moreover, the drop in levels elsewhere was largely attributable to a decrease from 2008 to 2009, a one-year period.  If, as suggested in the Report, one of the driving forces in any decrease was heavier rainfall in 2009, then a reduction in rainfall in 2010 from 2009 could result in a return to the upward trend and higher levels of nitrate contaminants in groundwater.

Excessive extraction of groundwater is not a significant problem in Ireland, as it is in many other EU countries.  Pesticides were sampled for the first time in this reporting period, and while they do not present a significant pollution problem, they do exceed the drinking water standard in 16 of 18,722 samples.  The pesticides bear watching closely as new studies in the United States suggest that babies exposed in the womb to high levels of common pesticides have lower I.Q. scores when they reach school age.  See “Pesticide Exposure in Womb Affects I.Q.”, New York Times, linked in News section of irish environment (Friday, April 22, 2011); see, also, Michael Surgan and Caroline Cox, “An Integrated Pest Management Dilemma: Pesticide Regulations Confound Efforts to Identify Least Toxic Products,” in the Articles section of irish environment (September 2010).

Rivers and Canals

Applying the traditional methods for assessing the quality of the rivers, about 69% of Ireland’s rivers are classified as unpolluted, and only 0.4% rated as seriously polluted.  This represents about a10% deterioration over the period from about 1990 to 2009, with fewer Unpolluted rivers in 2009.

When the assessment is done for classification under the WFD, conditions are even less encouraging.  Under these newer, more demanding values, only 52% of the river water bodies within the River Basin Districts achieve High or Good, 28 % are Moderate, and 20% are Poor or Bad.

The RBDs exhibit a sharp contrast between the cleaner, and typically less dense and less developed, Southwest (92% unpolluted) and Western (83% unpolluted) RBDs, and the dirtier Eastern RBD with 46% unpolluted.  The Northwest International RBD showed a worsening condition with a decline from 76% Unpolluted in 2001-03 to 66% Unpolluted in 2007-0910 as measured by surveyed channel length.

Fishkills were notorious in the 1980s, with over 220 kills for 1986-89 and 1989-91.  These kills were largely attributed to agricultural practices.  With a sustained informational and enforcement campaign, the fishkills dropped in 1992-94 to almost 120, then rose again and recently have been falling.  In 2001-03 there were 147, in 2004-06 there were 122, and in 2007-09 only 72.  In 2009, there were 16, a 50% reduction from 2008, and none of the kills in 2009 were attributed to agriculture.  Other sectors that contribute to fishkills include industry and local authorities.

In comparison with other EU countries, Ireland has one of the lowest concentrations for phosphate, BOD and ammonia, but is mid-way in comparison on nitrate levels. Yet for Irish rivers, eutrophication and organic pollution remain the major assaults from phosphate, total ammonia, biochemical oxygen (BOD), and nitrates.

Sampling for the dangerous substances set forth in the WFD, either as priority substances or priority hazardous substances, include various polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides and herbicides.  Results indicate that the substances were detected or exceeded established standards in a low percentage of samples.  Similarly, metals do not seem to present significant problems with only minor exceedances for copper, chromium, cadmium and zinc.  The Report notes that impacts from metals from mining sites may be underestimated since some mining sites are not included in the WFD monitoring scheme. For more on the historic mining site pollution problems, see “Historic Mine Sites – Inventory and Risk Classification,” in the Reports section of irish environment (May 2010).

The very wet summer conditions in 2007-09 are noted and they may account for some of the impacts measured in the monitoring program.  Wet summers mitigate biological effects of pollution, because contaminants from point sources associated with industrial and wastewater treatment operations are diluted.  At the same time, such wet conditions increase nutrient contamination because of higher runoff from lands surrounding the water bodies, often attributed to diffuse discharges from farming operations.

Canals can be, and in Ireland are, designated as Artificial Water Bodies (AWB) — a body of water created by human activity — under the WFD.  These AWBs have to achieve only “good ecological potential” under the WFD rather than “good,” but they also have to meet requirements for good chemical status.  The WFD sets out the requirements for ecological potential.   The main canal systems are the Royal and Grand Canals and the Shannon-Erne Waterway.  All the canals met the standard for “good ecological potential” under the WFD except one stretch of the Grand Canal and that failed only because it was under restoration.  At the same time, under traditional water quality assessment, there were breaches in all three AWBs for nutrients and coliform bacteria, usually because of elevated levels of these substances in feeder streams.

The Report identified 953 sites that were classified under the traditional method as either slightly polluted (547 sites), or moderately polluted (386 sites), or seriously polluted (20 sites).  Of these 953 sites the agency found that the source of pollution at 47% was from agriculture and 39% from municipal wastewater discharges, for a total of 86% from these two sectors.   Additional sources of pollution included forestry, industrial, engineering works, mining, aquaculture, and peat harvesting.  Of the 20 seriously polluted, 9 were caused by municipal waste discharges, 3 by agriculture, and 4 by engineering works, including 3 from bog bursts or landslide associated with wind farm construction.  On a brighter note, the 20 sites classified as seriously polluted in 2007-09 represent a 50% drop from the 39 such sites in 2004-2006.


Under the traditional assessment, lake water quality in Ireland has been assessed using a modified version of an OECD scheme based on the annual

maximum chlorophyll a concentration. The Irish scheme classified lakes into six water quality or trophic status categories using maximum levels of planktonic algae measured during the period.  The categories, going from least impaired to most impaired, are: oligotrophic, mesotrophic, moderately mesotrophic, strongly eutrophic, highly eutrophic, and hypertrophic.  Of the 222 lakes monitored, 180, or 81.1%, were deemed to be satisfactory (either oligotrophic or mesotrophic), 39 or 17.6% were moderately or strongly eutrophic, and 3 or 1.4% were most enriched, namely Loughs Gur, Inner, and Naglack.  This represented a 4% decline of satisfactory lakes from the previous reporting period.  In terms of area of lakes affected, as opposed to the above percentages of numbers of lakes affected, the Report finds that 92.1 % of the lake areas were satisfactory.

When the WFD ecological status assessment was applied, only 105 lakes of 222 or 47.3% achieved Good or High status, 92 or 41.4% were moderate, 19 were Poor and 6 were Bad.  Of the 25 lakes that were classified either Poor or Bad, 15 are located in either Co. Cavan or Co. Monaghan, two in Co. Leitrim, and one in Co. Donegal.  The unsatisfactory condition of these lakes is largely the result of excess phosphates that cause algal blooms.  The Report indicates that lakes in Co. Donegal are generally in areas of low intensity agriculture, large tracts of natural vegetation and generally low levels of urbanisation whereas Counites Cavan and Monaghan are areas of  high intensity farming and poorly draining soils.

Freshwater bathing lakes are regulated under the EU Bathing Waters Directive 2006/7/EC which provides two sets of standards: minimum quality standards (EU mandatory values) and more stringent quality targets (EU guide values). Over the bathing season, water quality at each bathing area must comply with the minimum EU mandatory values. In addition, all bathing areas should endeavour to achieve the stricter EU guide values.

Ireland has nine freshwater bathing areas.  In 2004-06 all nine lakes complied with the WFD minimum/mandatory standards but only six did in 2008, although two recovered their minimum standard in 2009.  Applying the more demanding guide values, again there was a decline from 2004-06 through 2008 and a slight recovery in 2009 when 6 of the 9 bathing lakes complied with guide values.  Faecal matter, often due to inadequate sewage treatment and pollution from animal waste, is the primary health threat to bathers.

For a number of years three acid-sensitive lakes and feeder streams — Lough Veagh in Co. Donegal, Lough Maumwee in Co. Galway, and Glenadalough Lake Upper in Co. Wicklow — have been monitored for impacts from artificial acidification and they continue to be largely free of such impacts.

Estuarine and Coastal Waters

These transition water bodies, marking the boundaries between the seas and land, are assessed using the EPA’s Trophic Status Assessment Scheme (TSAS) to identify the trophic state of the water.  The TSAS is required for the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and Nitrates Directive. Of the 89 water bodies included in the assessment, 9 (10.1%) were classed as Eutrophic (compared to 13 in previous assessment in 2002-06), 5 (5.6%) as potentially eutrophic, 31 (34.8%) as intermediate, and 44 (49.5%) were unpolluted (compared to 27 last time).  In terms of surface area, 5.3 per cent of the total area assessed (just under 2,000 km2) is classed as either eutrophic or potentially eutrophic.

This recent assessment shows that the vast majority of waters (99.5% of the surface area assessed) had satisfactory oxygen conditions capable of supporting nearly all forms of aquatic life.

Improvements are attributed to upgraded levels of wastewater treatment largely from implementation of the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.  In 1998-99, only 26% of discharges were subjected to secondary treatment and 38% to primary treatment.  Because of the Directive, by 2008, 90% of wastewater received at least secondary treatment, and many of the 112 locations where there is either no treatment or only basic treatment are subject to licenses or plans for treatment under agreements with the EPA.

Besides the nutrient enrichment assessment, under the TSAS, the water bodies were evaluated for ecological status including evaluation for hazardous substances and morphological impacts under the WFD.   Under that assessment of 121 waters, 55 (46%) were classified as Good (36) or High (19), while 62 were Moderate and 4 were Poor (total of 56%).  When analysed for area, about 64% of the area was found to be Good or High.

For other parameters, the coastal and estuarine waters passed various tests.  Fish tissue samples are tested for mercury levels and analysed for other trace metals (such as lead and cadmium) and chlorinated hydrocarbons. Generally, the fish tested below the strictest standard for values under EU standards. Shellfish are tested for various pollutants and harvesting can be limited depending on the level of contaminants.  None of the areas for harvesting were subject to a ban and only one area was classified as of low quality, however due to the presence of toxins in shellfish in 2008 there was widespread closures of shellfish production areas.  The Report indicates that the toxins are naturally occurring and not from human activities.

Radiation levels in the marine environment are monitored to assess any impacts from discharges from the Sellafield reprocessing plant on the Irish Sea in Cumbria, UK.  A radioactive substance called technetium-99 has been detected in the Irish Sea and levels were rising in the early to mid-1990s, because of waste treatment operations at Sellafield.  The Report notes that the levels have fallen substantially since 2004 due to changes at the treatment plant.  The Report notes that an analysis of possible exposures to different fish-consuming groups, assuming certain levels of consumption, would result in an estimated annual committed effective dose to members of these two groups of between 0.24µSv (microsievert) and 0.44µSv, which doses are small compared to average annual dose of 3950 µSv to a person in Ireland from all sources of radioactivity.  Finally, the annual committed effective dose to the notional typical seafood consumer has decreased steadily along with the reduction in Sellafield discharges since the 1980s.

Of the 122 seawater bathing areas, 93% complied with the minimum EU mandatory values for sufficient water quality (required as standard by 2015), a drop from the 97% in 2007 and 95% in 2008.  The lower compliance rates reflect the need for wastewater treatment facilities to protect bathing waters.  Of interest to those who monitor the quality of bathing waters in Ireland, in July 2009 the EPA launched a new online map-based website “Splash” ( that provides the public with bathing water quality information for the designated seawater and freshwater bathing areas around Ireland.

EPA also participates, with An Taisce, in the voluntary Blue Flag Scheme for bathing sites.  To achieve a Blue Flag, the sites must have a high standard of water quality and meet specified objectives with regard to the provision of safety services and facilities, environmental management of the beach area, and environmental education.  There were 80 blue flags awarded in 2007, 78 in 2008, and 75 in 2009, the drop in numbers attributed to heavy rainfall in 2008-09 which resulted in increased discharges from wastewater treatment plants.

Oil spills in Ireland tend to be small in volume and area affected, involve fuel rather than crude oil, and occur most often in smaller harbours.  The largest spill in 2007-09 was of more than 300 tonnes of fuel oil and water mixture spilled from a Russian aircraft carrier being refuelled south of Fastnet Rock.  The prevailing winds carried the oil slick out to sea where it dispersed.  In this same period, there were 13 incidents when oil pollution reached beaches, and the extent of impact from all 13 was less than 1.6 km; there were no instances of birds being oiled in 2007 or 2009 and 6 incidents in 2008.  It should be noted that more oil spills may have occurred offshore as Ireland has very limited aerial surveillance.


To summarize, the different water bodies are classified under the WFD criteria as: Groundwater: Good – 84.7%,  Poor – 15.3%;  Rivers: High/Good –  52%, Poor/Bad – 20%;  Lakes:High/Good – 47.3%, Poor/Bad – 12%;  Estuarine/Coastal: High/Good – 46%, Poor  ~3.5%.  Although not addressed in the Report, groundwater may be less impacted in the RoI because the major causes of pollution of water bodies are farming practices and wastewater treatment systems, both of which typically affect surface waters more than subsurface waters.

Except for groundwater, only about 50% of the other water bodies meet the WFD criteria for High or Good status and about 15% are Poor or Bad.  That leaves a very big challenge for Ireland to comply with the WFD by bringing all water bodies to at least Good status by 2015.  It remains unclear just how that challenge is to be met.

In a comparison based on all surface water bodies classified for ecological status under the WFD, Ireland had about 50% in the Good or High categories, compared to the United Kingdom with about 35% in Good/High categories, and to Germany which had about 9% in Good/High.   For another comparison, in 2009, a report to Congress by the EPA, based on 2004 data, classified 44% of river and stream miles, 64% of lake acres, 30% of estuarine square miles, and 93% of Great Lakes shoreline miles as impaired (unacceptable for designated uses).

We can be thankful that Ireland escaped the heavy environmental costs of a widespread, deeply industrialized economy.  But before we become too complacent, there are some troubling systemic pressures on our natural resources coming from sewage and agricultural practices (especially nutrient enrichment and eutrophication).  These problems outnumber the occasional threats from out-of-the-ordinary accidental spills or discharges (oil from ships, chemicals from industrial plants) and transboundary releases (e.g., radiation from Japan or Sellafield).

When the Report identifies a likely point source for the poor quality of a specific water body or a particular form of water body (e.g., lakes generally), it is often an inadequate public wastewater treatment plant or private septic system.  The explosive growth of housing and urban sprawl, often without adequate wastewater treatment systems, is just another legacy from the Celtic Tiger.

As the Report acknowledges, “A number of the more notable problem areas will require infrastructural investment in new wastewater treatment plants.”   We are not provided with data estimating the scope of that work and the funding necessary to accomplish it, so it remains to be seen where the money will come from.  The volume of wastewater, unsurprisingly, is a function of the amount of water consumed, and sent for treatment.  Water charges seem like a sensible option for helping to resolve this problem, yet there is little political commitment for such an option. (4)

While the corrective actions needed to address point source pollution are economically challenging, diffuse or non-point sources of pollution present their own challenges.  Diffuse sources most often come from operations in forestry, agriculture and peat harvesting where run-off from the operations picks up contaminants (e.g., nitrates, phosphorous) and discharges those contaminants into the water body.  There are no pipes or obvious structures, or point sources, to easily identify the source of the contamination observed in the water body, so more investigation is needed to eliminate, narrow and finally identify the sources, usually working back from the observed pollution of the water body.

To address problems associated with diffuse sources, the Report finds that “… it is the enthusiasm and vigilance of local authority staff working in the River Basin District that will ultimately bring about the necessary improvements in water quality.”  There is little comfort in this “solution.”  The water quality remains unsatisfactory for over 50% of the water bodies and there is no sense where Local Authorities can make improvements without either substantial funding and/or increased staff who are fully trained in operating the wastewater treatment plants, in undertaking investigative monitoring, and in taking aggressive enforcement actions against polluters, often local farmers, peat harvesters and small commercial operations likely well known to the enforcers.

Both Local Governments and the farming community carry broad, powerful political constituencies and whether there is a political will to confront these challenges is very much an open question.  Once again it may well be only threats of enormous fines from the European Commission that drives environmental protection, and compliance with EU law, in Ireland as we have recently seen with adverse impacts from turf cutting.


(1) The clearest explanation of the ways in which the assessments covered in the Report are undertaken can be found in Appendix 3.1 which is not available online but can be obtained by contacting the EPA.

(2) The Report indicates that if corrective measures are implemented, the objectives to achieve Good status could be extended to 2021 or 2027 and that particularly troubling sites, such as those polluted from historic mining operations, may be candidates for “less stringent objectives” which require only that no further deterioration occur.  Report, at page 38-39.  For more on the historic mining site pollution problems, see “Historic Mine Sites – Inventory and Risk Classification,” in the Report section (May 2010) of irish environment.

(3) Threshold Values (TV) are standards established by the Member States that serve as triggers for taking action when the TV is exceeded

(4)  It now appears that the present government may be required to impose water charges as part of the EU/IMF financial bailout.  “Households face €175 water charge after Fine Gael U-turn,”  Irish Independent (May 4, 2011).   This Note added 04 May 2011.


Irish Environmental Protection Agency, WATER QUALITY IN IRELAND 2007-2009, Edited by Martin McGarrigle, John Lucey and Micheál O’Cinnéide (2011).  The appendices and the raw priority substances data are not currently available on the EPA website but can be obtained by contacting the EPA.,30640,en.html

Water Framework Directive, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy.

Environmental Quality Standards with 33 “priority hazardous substances”.  Directive 2008/105/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy, amending and subsequently repealing Council Directives 82/176/EEC, 83/513/EEC, 84/156/EEC, 84/491/EEC, 86/280/EEC and amending Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council

Bathing Water Directive 2006/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 February 2006 concerning the management of bathing water quality and repealing Directive 76/160/EEC

European Commission, Water Information System for Europe (WISE),, a gateway to European water information.  See, in particular, the series of 12 “Water information notes” that provide a helpful description of the various provisions of the WFD.

On public participation provisions of EU law, see: Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 on public access to environmental information and repealing Council Directive 90/313/EEC; and Directive 2003/35/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 May 2003 providing for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programmes relating to the environment and amending with regard to public participation and access to justice Council Directives 85/337/EEC and 96/61/EC – Statement by the Commission.*T1%3DV112%3BT2%3DV1%3BT3%3DV1&Submit=Search*T1%3DV112%3BT2%3DV1%3BT3%3DV1&Submit=Search

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2009) National Water Quality Inventory 2004 Report.

University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, “U.S. Wastewater Treatment.”

For an example of threats to a river basin, and efforts to protect it, see: Robert Emmet Hernan, “Rhine River, Switzerland, 1986,” in This Borrowed Earth: Lessons From The 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around The World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

On Ireland’s history of non-compliance with EU environmental laws and regulations, see Andrew L.R. Jackson, “The Emerald Isle?  Ireland’s environmental compliance record in cross-EU terms,” in the Articles section of irish environment (June 2010), and “European Union Environmental Law:  Still a Work in Progress,” in the Reports section of irish environment (April 2011

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One comment so far, add your own below

  • 4 Jun 2012 at 6:06 pm Jailbreak

    Very interesting information!Perfect just what I was looking for!

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