Analysis: 30% of Ireland's water bodies have failed to meet environmental standards for water quality since 2019

By Eleftheria Ntagia, Amulya Kotamraju and Piet N. L. Lens, University of Galway

There is water everywhere you look in Ireland. The country is strongly connected with water and you can see it in our daily interaction with it. Surface water in Ireland occupies about 90% of the total water bodies and water sports are a common daily activity, with 49% of the adults participating all year round in a water-based activity. Besides leisure, these activities account for 45% of the domestic tourist revenue, 59% of which comes from freshwater game angling.

But while water is important, a decline in the surface water quality has been noticed in both urban and rural Ireland. The national water monitoring programme for 2019 to 2021 reports that 30% of the 4,842 water bodies monitored are at risk and 26% are under review for failing to meet the environmental standards.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News in May 2022, five Irish beaches have lost their blue flag status because of poor water quality

To understand how people use surface water in Ireland and their perception of water quality, we interviewed people actively involved in nature and water preservation from academia, government agencies, NGOs and private organisations. In these interviews, individuals and group representatives, mainly from western Ireland, shared their opinions on water-based activities, their experience with declining water quality and their angst about Irish nature endangerment.

Trying to find mental solace from the pandemic lockdown, people yearned for more time outdoors and engaged with nature and water. They observed chronic changes in the environment, such as shifts in fish habits, a decline in catches and an increase of invasive species. They also noticed acute changes, such as algal blooms in Galway's Lough Corrib and Clare’s Lough Inchiquin. The release of untreated wastewater into surface waters during heavy rains and water quality deterioration was also witnessed.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Mary Gurrie from the Environmental Protection Agency on the declining quality of water in Ireland

Angling groups and environmental protection groups with activities around Lough Corrib expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of monitoring reports on algal blooms, especially compared to abundant monitoring reports on bathing water. Pollution from microplastics, tyre and road wear particles and industrial chemicals were other major concerns. Community groups expressed the need for regular monitoring of these compounds in surface waters. Health related concerns, such as rashes on skin after water activities in lakes or rivers, were mentioned by members of boating clubs.

Ineffective communication between the responsible authorities and citizens was also raised. Responsibility for monitoring is divided between different public entities with no clear breakdown of who does what. Because of this, people were unsure who to contact to report water quality related concerns. Several people pointed out that the contents of water quality reports are often too technical for the lay reader and that the presentation format is far too complex to comprehend.

What can be done?

Increase monitoring and reporting

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and EPA-nominated public authorities monitor surface water regularly and the results are reported to protect public health, boost tourism and the local economy. The quality of lake or river waters is reported in terms of its biological status and the potential for eutrophication. Faecal coliforms are not reported for lakes and rivers, which are monitored for coastal/bathing waters but only during the official bathing season from June 1st to September 15th.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News in August 2021, an EU project is helping to improve water quality on a Co Wexford beach

It is important to report faecal coliforms in lakes and rivers to avoid the risk of waterborne diseases, as people are now equally using these waters for swimming and boating. During lockdown, swimming in open water extended outside the official bathing season, indicating that monitoring faecal coliforms strictly during bathing season and only for regularly monitored sites is no longer adequate to protect public health.

Promote nature-based solutions

In the quest for improved water quality and safe spaces for recreational activities, nature-based solutions could be a winner. Constructed wetlands, restored wetlands, urban planted, or fish, ponds and floating beds or wetlands are examples that could be applied based on the intensity of pollution and the available space.

Irish Water has already focused on constructed wetlands and suggest that they offer additional benefits such as reduced energy use, carbon sequestration, flood control and leisure activities for local communities. Furthermore, social inclusiveness can be nurtured and awareness can be raised through educational activities.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Mary Gurrie from he Environmental Protection Agency on the deteriorating quality of water in Irish waters and lakes

Engage citizens in the discussion

It is evident that Irish citizens have both strong opinions about water quality and have demonstrated collective willingness to take action. LawPro’s formation in 2016 undoubtedly improved the communication between the citizens and the monitoring authorities. By providing knowledge funding and training, LawPro has been pivotal to the emergence of 40 to 50 NGOs focusing on water quality and biodiversity in Ireland.

Involving citizens in the early stages of the design process is catalytic, as people resonate more strongly with the solution formed together with them rather than a solution formed for them. It is critical now to accelerate the citizen engagement momentum that has been built over the years through the actions of numerous NGOs and community groups to ensure clean water ecosystems.

The authors' research included contact with and feedback from LawPro, Corrib Beo, Galway Waterways Foundation, Galway City Council, University of Galway Kayak Club, University of Galway Sustainability Office, Ulster University, Waterways Ireland, Irish Water, Galway City Community Network and University of Galway Boat Club.

Dr. Eleftheria Ntagia is a post doctoral researcher with the IETSBIO3 group and the Ryan Institute at the University of Galway. Dr. Amulya Kotamraju is a post doctoral researcher with the IETSBIO3 group and the Ryan Institute at the University of Galway. Prof. Piet N.L. Lens is an established professor of New Energy Technologies and principal investigator with MaREI at the University of Galway.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ