Catchment News

The Catchment Services Concept – A means of connecting and progressing Water Framework Directive and biodiversity requirements in the context of ‘Sustainable Intensification’ of agriculture, and climate change

Achieving successful management of our water and biodiversity resources in the context of both the Food Harvest 2020 strategy and climate change is a major challenge for Irish society and the public servants who have responsibilities in these areas.

Meeting the challenge will benefit from a holistic, integrated approach by considering related elements of water management, biodiversity management, land-use management and climate adaptation/mitigation together to their mutual benefit. Currently there is a danger that siloed organisational structures founded on either disciplines, specific regulations and/or narrowly based processes and objectives with inadequate linkages and integration, could hamper progress. This paper proposes the catchment services concept as an overarching framework that includes all the services in a catchment – ecosystem, geosystem and human/social system services – with the aim of encouraging relevant disciplines, work units and organisations to understand and take account of the linkages, and to work together to benefit both water and biodiversity, and potentially enabling sustainable and climate resilient agricultural practices.

The philosophy underlying this article are that: i) in the Irish landscape, climate, farming, habitats and water are inter-related and inter connected; ii) each have requirements that, in certain circumstances, are conflicting; iii) we need a means of maintaining agricultural production, while boosting climate resilience, protecting wildlife and ensuring satisfactory water quality; iv) we are unlikely to achieve this unless we adopt a holistic, integrated approach.


The river catchment is proposed as the land based unit for water management and for most components of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity management. Catchments are coherent topographically-based features, defined by the natural hydrology and hydrogeology, with water in continuous connection over ground and underground from the highest areas along the topographic divide to the lowest areas alongside rivers.

Therefore, catchments link aquatic biodiversity, aquatic ecology and water status. In the process, they connect the ecologically-driven Water Framework Directive (WFD) with the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.

Agriculture is the dominant land-use in most catchments; water links farming to the requirements of both the WFD and the Biodiversity Strategy. While it can be argued that terrestrial wildlife is not linked directly to water in catchments, several species are associated with water and all are associated with geographical areas, even if the boundaries are not defined by topography.

Integrated Catchment Management (ICM)

The ICM approach (Daly, 2013) is supported by the Department of Environment, Community & Local Government (DEHLG, 2015) as the means of ensuring the good ecological health of water in Ireland. ICM involves a series of interconnected steps: i) building partnerships; ii) creating and communicating a vision of ICM; iii) characterising the physical and ecological components; iv) identifying and evaluating possible management strategies; v) designing an implementation programme; and vi) implementing the programme and making adjustments, if necessary. It takes account of and connects all the services in the catchment – ecosystem, geosystem and human-social. It requires partnership with local communities and citizen engagement.

Looking to the future, planning for how to manage carbon emissions while maintaining the catchment services so that they can support local livelihoods and ecosystems will be vital. Adapting to climate changes already ‘locked in’ due to historical emissions will also be key, and highlighting adaptation measures at catchment or subcatchment scale could help people see the tangible benefits locally.

For instance, measures such as in-field water ponds could help reduce peak flows from floods, while maintaining farmer’s access to water, reducing runoff of nutrients, and enhancing local biodiversity.

Catchment Services

Catchment services comprise two components of natural capital – ecosystem and geosystem services – and the social and economic services provided by people living in the catchment.

Ecosystem services

The crops; livestock; terrestrial and aquatic flora and fauna; pollination; riparian zones for water purification; soil ecosystems for attenuating pollutants and increasing crop production; cultural values attached to wildlife; etc.

Geosystem services

The landscape geomorphology; bedrock and gravel; groundwater for drinking water and geothermal energy; soils and subsoils as chemical and physical attenuating media for pollutants; hydrometeorology (rainfall, evapotranspiration, wind); geological heritage sites; minerals; oil/gas; caves; cultural values associated with landscape features; etc.

Human-social system services

Housing; farming both intensive and extensive; mining; quarrying; wind farms; water abstraction facilities; roads; landfills; industries; cultural values associated with historical features and buildings such as ring forts, castles and holy wells; water mills; pathways along streams and canals; and other recreational facilities; etc.

There are overlaps between the three systems because natural and cultural landscapes are on a spectrum and not in separate silos.

The value of using these three subdivisions of services within the concept of catchment management is as follows:

  • It helps ensure that all relevant services are considered in an integrated manner, thereby assisting in achieving sustainability.
  • The conceptual framework encourages linkages between water management, biodiversity objectives, climate change mitigation and adaptation, land-use planning and the ICM approach. Currently, there is a tendency to treat biodiversity and water quality objectives separately, for instance in agri-environment schemes. While many measures designed for biodiversity also assist in achieving water quality objectives (including drinking water safety) and vice versa, the co-benefits are not achieved because the measures are not usually considered collectively (e.g., planting crop cover for bird species can have dual/multiple benefits provided the crop is planted in the vicinity of a stream). This situation is exacerbated by the fact that different Departments and public bodies have separate responsibilities for biodiversity, water quality, planning, flood protection and drinking water provision.
  • The catchment services concept links natural capital with human/social capital and therefore builds on the intellectual, promotional and educational opportunities provided by the natural capital concept.
  • Consideration of all three types of services is necessary in preparing River Basin Management Plans as part of the implementation of the WFD.
  • It may help provide additional reasons for encouraging certain types of ecological restoration, for instance, restoration of riparian zones which have the multiple benefits of increasing biodiversity and climate resilience, improving water quality, flood alleviation and adding to the aesthetic beauty of river flood plains.
  • From the perspective of local communities, it is comprehensive and includes the complete mosaic of physical, ecological, cultural and infrastructural features and functions, thereby giving a sense of comfort that no one sector is dominating and that the needs of local communities are taken into account.

EPA Catchments Approach

As part of the EPA role in WFD implementation, the EPA approach involves characterising ~600 subcatchments, which vary in size from 70-200 km2, with the assistance of local authorities and other public bodies – the greater the assistance provided, the greater the value of the work. This scale is considered to be appropriate to the level of information available and suitable for community engagement.

The services are included and can be recorded in a subcatchment reporting template, even those not directly relevant to the WFD. Pressures on water and aquatic ecosystems are determined and, in the case of diffuse pollution sources, likely critical source areas are located. Potential management strategies and mitigation measures are evaluated. A regional assessment is enabled by aggregating the subcatchment reports into 46 water management units – these are the national hydrometric areas, e.g. Suir and Brosna catchments. These will be the basis for the national River Basin Management Plan that is due for finalisation in December 2017. This catchment work will provide the building blocks for successful water, biodiversity and land-use management in the future and the results will be made available online to all.

As national climate mitigation and adaptation strategies are published over the coming years, actions at local catchment and subcatchment scale could be planned and recorded to show the value of this work to local communities.


Even with an abundance of expertise in the areas of water, climate change, biodiversity and farming, an absence of joined-up thinking can lead to poor decision making; the common platform provided by the catchment services concept would mitigate this.


This article is a slightly amended version of a paper that was published in the Teagasc National Biodiversity Conference 2015 “Farmland Conservation with 2020 Vision”. The Proceedings are available at: view_publication.aspx?PublicationID=3742

Donal Daly & Paddy Morris, EPA Catchments Unit


Daly, D. 2013. A healthy catchment initiative for Ireland – Making Integrated Catchment Management Happen. Proceedings of IAH Conf. “Groundwater and Catchment Management”, Tullamore.. Available at:

DECLG, 2015. Significant water management issues: public consultation document. Department of Environment, Community and Local Government. Available at: www. MainBody,41920,en.htm

Who is involved?

Quite simply, everyone in Ireland has a role to play. This can be from something as simple as making sure you don’t pollute your local stream, or a local community working together to establish a Rivers Trust to enhance the rivers and lakes in their area, to a Government Department or Agency helping a Minister implement a new policy to help protect and enhance all our water bodies.

This website has been developed and is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is a collaboration between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Local Authority Waters Programme.


Local Authority Waters Programme

The Local Authority Waters Programme coordinates the efforts of local authorities and other public bodies in the implementation of the River Basin Management Plan, and supports local community and stakeholder involvement in managing our natural waters, for everyone’s benefit.


Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is responsible for coordinating the monitoring, assessment and reporting on the status of our 4,842 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives for each.


Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

The Department is responsible for making sure that the right policies, regulations and resources are in place to implement the Water Framework Directive, and developing a River Basin Management Plan and Programme of Measures to protect and restore our waters.