Catchment News

EPA report published: Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2020

The EPA report on Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2020, shows that the pace at which essential improvements in waste water treatment are being delivered is too slow.  Irish Water is making progress in resolving environmental issues and the number of priority areas has reduced from 148 to 97 over the past four years. However, there is still a long way to go to bring all deficient treatment systems up to standard.

There have been further delays in providing treatment for many of the 34 towns and villages discharging raw sewage, and as a result over one third of these areas will not receive treatment until after 2024.

Investment in waste water infrastructure is bringing environmental benefits to some areas.  The number of large towns and cities failing to meet EU treatment standards is down from 28 in 2017 to 12 in 2020.  However, the final deadline for all large urban areas to meet these treatment standards was 2005.  

  • 34 towns and villages release raw sewage into the environment every day, and a third of these will continue to do so after 2024
  • 12 large towns and cities did not meet waste water treatment standards set to protect our environment. These areas generate half of Ireland’s waste water
  • Ireland will need substantial and sustained investment to bring public waste water treatment up to standard

It is unacceptable that 15 years after the final deadline to comply, half of Ireland’s urban waste water is still not treated to the basic EU standards.  There are repeated delays in providing proper treatment at many areas, and this continues to put our environment and people’s health at risk.  It is clear that Ireland will still need substantial investment over many years to bring our public waste water treatment plants and public sewers up to standard.  Irish Water must deliver the essential infrastructure in as timely a manner as possible and resolve the underlying causes for the delays in upgrading treatment systems.

Dr Tom Ryan, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement

The EPA report identifies the priority areas where improvements are most urgently needed and will deliver the greatest environmental benefits. 

While we are seeing progress at some areas, it is very concerning that Irish Water still has no clear action plans setting out when and how it will improve treatment at many of the priority areas where waste water is threatening the quality of our rivers and coastal waters.  It is essential that Irish Water improves treatment to resolve the environmental issues highlighted by the EPA and provides clear, site specific action plans and time frames to carry out this work

Noel Byrne, EPA Programme Manager

The report contains key actions recommended for Irish Water as follows:

  • Direct resources to the priority areas and ensure there is a clear plan and time frame to resolve the environmental issues at each area.
  • Resolve the underlying causes for delays in upgrading treatment systems and deliver upgrade works in as timely a manner as possible.
  • Complete the impact assessments for shellfish waters and address the information shortfalls on the condition and performance of collecting systems.

Environmental priorities

While there has been progress recently, waste water treatment at many areas is still not as good as it needs to be.  Based on current investment levels and rates of delivery of waste water infrastructure it will take two decades to fix all the problems. 

Priority must be given to areas where improvements are most needed and will bring the greatest benefits.  The EPA identifies the following as the priority areas:

  • 34 towns and villages that released raw sewage into the environment in 2020 because they did not have treatment plants. The second largest of these, Cobh in County Cork, was connected to a treatment plant in August 2021.
  • 12 large towns and cities that did not treat waste water to EU standards set to protect the environment. These include Dublin, served by an overloaded plant at Ringsend that treats almost half (43%) of Ireland’s urban waste water.
  • 42 areas where waste water is a significant pollution pressure on rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters at risk of pollution. Irish Water has no clear action plan or time frame to improve treatment at over two thirds of these.
  • 12 towns and villages where waste water treatment must improve to protect endangered freshwater pearl mussels living in nearby rivers. Pearl mussel populations are declining globally due to deteriorating river quality.
  • 7 large towns and cities where collecting systems (sewers) need to be upgraded to address a judgement from the European Court of Justice and to ensure waste water is retained in the sewers and conveyed for treatment.
Raw Sewage Infographic

The full list of priority urban areas and the environmental issue at each area is available on the EPA website.  This also shows when and how Irish Water plans to resolve the priority issue at each area.

Ordinance Survey image of Ireland
34 towns and villages that released raw sewage into the environment every day in 2020 because they did not have treatment plants.
Ordinance Survey image of Ireland
12 large towns and cities that failed to meet EU waste water treatment standards in 2020.

Learn more:–assessment/waste-water/uww-report-2020.php

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.