Water quality under threat from pollution, says watchdog
Water quality in one in three rivers and lakes is at risk of deteriorating due to pressures from agriculture, urban wastewater and other pollution sources.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that despite EU rules requiring improvements in quality over time, there has been "too much deterioration" over recent years.
Director of the Office of Evidence and Assessment Dr Matt Crowe told the National Water Event in Galway that while Ireland's environment was "generally good", there were "underlying issues of concern".
"While the worst of the rivers have improved, we have lost the best of the best," he said. "National figures mask what's going on at a local level."
Of some 4,000 river and lake water bodies, 1,360 or 34pc are at risk.
"There is no deterioration allowed," Dr Crowe added. "The Water Framework Directive doesn't allow it, but the 1998 phosphorous regulations didn't allow it either. It's really clear what the scale of the challenge is. There's been a lot of improvement as well, and the EPA is doing a lot of work on the science as to why we have deterioration on certain sites.
"How do we reverse this trend? We need to get the evidence and governance right, and we can then focus on the right measures."
Around half of rivers and lakes considered to be at risk are impacted by a number of pollutants. Agriculture poses the greatest threat, along with wastewater treatment plants, forestry and extractive industries including mining and peat.
EPA plans to improve water quality from agricultural pressures are "particularly challenging" due to the number of waterbodies, the number of landowners involved, and the lack of resources at farm level to take action. While some plans would result in "quick wins", issues would remain in some rivers and lakes until after 2027.
The conference also heard the State had allocated €1.7bn to Irish Water to complete upgrades of wastewater treatment plants, which would help reduce pollution levels.
River basin management plans, currently out for public consultation, would lead to improvements in water of 150 water bodies by 2021, coupled with an industry-led initiative to manage pressures from agriculture. Investment in more than 100 wastewater treatment plants was proposed.
"There are 400,000 jobs in water intensive industries. Water is more than just public health and compliance, it has a heritage and economic value," said Maria Graham, assistant secretary at the Department of Housing.