Catchment News

Explaining the Catchment Characterisation Outcomes – Finding the Appropriate Words

Over the last few months, Catchment Unit staff have given numerous presentations as part of the catchment characterisation process. While it can be acknowledged that, from a scientific perspective, significant progress has been made, it has become clear that the words/language used need to be appropriate for two audiences:

  1. i) scientists/engineers that are involved with the technical aspects of catchment management and Water Framework Directive implementation; and
  2. ii) people often without a technical background but whose role in successful catchment management is critical, such as farmers and local communities.

Failure to communicate effectively can lead to inadequate understanding of the characterisation results and poor take-up of the actions required to achieve progress and, where needed, behavioural change. While effective communication has many aspects to it, for sure the words/language used are an important component.

Characterisation outcomes – the formal results

The ultimate objective of the Water Framework Directive is to arrive at and undertake measures to enable Water Framework Directive objectives to be met, which are either achievement of good or high status by 2027 at the latest, unless natural conditions do not permit this. The approach, in summary, has been to categorise all 4,829 water bodies (groundwater, river, lake, transitional (estuarine) and coastal waters) into three categories based on the information available at the end of 2015:

  1. 1,466 (30%) water bodies that are At Risk of not meeting their Water Framework Directive objectives. These water bodies require not only implementation of the existing measures described in the various regulations, e.g. the Good Agricultural Practices Regulations, but also in many instances more targeted supplementary measures.
  2. 2,130 (44%) water bodies that are Not at Risk and therefore are meeting their Water Framework Directive objectives. These require maintenance of existing measures to protect the satisfactory status of the water bodies.
  3. 1,233 (26%) water bodies that are categorised as Review either because
  • additional information is needed to determine their status before resources and more targeted measures are initiated or
  • the measures have been undertaken, e.g. a wastewater treatment plant upgrade, but the outcome hasn’t yet been measured/monitored.

The risk of not meeting Water Framework Directive objectives is determined by assessment of monitoring data – water body status, trends in hydrochemistry and distances to thresholds, such as environmental quality standards. We use monitoring data to identify those water bodies that are not likely to be at their target water quality status by 2021, which is the duration of the 2nd WFD planning cycle.

For water bodies that are At Risk of not meeting their Water Framework Directive objectives, an evidence-based process was undertaken to identify the significant pressures; once a pressure is designated as ‘significant’, measures and accompanying resources are needed to mitigate the impact(s) from this pressure.

Risk is not determined by the presence of pressures – there is sometimes a tendency to assume this, which leads to misunderstandings, wrong conclusions and, potentially at least, inappropriate and ineffective measures to mitigate the impacts. The characterisation process has shown that for many diffuse (non-point) sources and some point sources, the pathway for pollutants between the pressure (source) and the receptor (such as a stream or well) may not be present or may be readily broken (see the role of the pathway in the diagram on p. 31).

The breakdown of the number of water bodies that are impacted by the various significant pressures is shown in the graph on p. 31. Investigative assessments now have to be undertaken in the catchment areas of most of these water bodies to enable the necessary measures and their precise location to be decided on.

These are the activities that we now have to look at in more detail, work out what needs to be done to alleviate the problems they are causing, and then undertake the necessary actions.

Characterisation outcomes – an everyday description

Satisfactory and healthy waters are needed for the wellbeing of Irish people, particularly as the basis for health, quality food, tourism, employment and an appealing and appreciated natural environment, as well as meeting our environmental responsibilities as members of the European Union.

Based on the physical setting and to make analysis of the situation easier and sensible, Ireland’s water resources are subdivided into five water types – rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal and groundwater (well and spring water). This has resulted in the mapping out of 4,829 water bodies throughout the country (3,192 river, 818 lakes, 195 estuaries, 111 coastal and 513 groundwater bodies).

The first step in achieving satisfactory water resources has been to evaluate all the available data for each of the 4,829 water bodies on water quality and quantity (e.g. levels of phosphate can affect rivers and lakes (for instance, shown by the presence of slime), nitrates that are dangerous for babies, pathogens or germs that make certain bathing waters unsuitable, and abstractions for drinking water and industry that can reduce river flows in summer), and the stresses and pressures that we put on our environment (e.g. septic tank effluent, urban wastewater, runoff of phosphorus (the main cause of eutrophication or blooms and slimes in our rivers and lakes in Ireland), sediment and nitrogen from farmland and farmyards).

Based on the analysis of the available information at the end of 2015 and the input of many public bodies, such as the EPA, local authorities, Inland Fisheries Ireland and Irish Water, all water bodies have been subdivided into three categories:

  1. 1,466 (30%) unsatisfactory water bodies that require improvement using both the existing regulations and specifically targeted actions.
  2. 2,130 (44%) satisfactory water bodies that need to be protected from human activities so that the current satisfactory situation is sustained.
  3. 1,233 (26%) water bodies that we are not sure about, because either
  • we don’t have enough information at the moment to know or
  • where actions to improve the situation are in place, e.g. an improved wastewater treatment plant, but we haven’t yet had the opportunity to check that the water quality is satisfactory. It is probable that a proportion of these will be satisfactory.

A crucial step in improving the situation is to work out which human activities are causing the problems in sub-standard water resources. The EPA in collaboration with several other public bodies, particularly the Environment Section staff in local authorities, have examined the situation closely and have concluded on the human activities that have caused the unsatisfactory water resources in 30% of our water bodies (see the diagram on p. 31). These are the activities that we now have to look at in more detail, work out what needs to be done to alleviate the problems they are causing, and then undertake the necessary actions to improve the situation.

The situation is summarised as follows:

  • Farming (runoff of pollutants from the land and from farmyards) has a detrimental effect on more water bodies than any other activity. However, the diagram also shows that farming takes place over a far higher proportion of the landscape than any other landuse.
  • Sewage disposal and the resulting effluent arising from people in cities, towns and in rural houses is the second highest pressure category on our water quality.
  • The animals and plants in our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters need good physical habitat conditions and the term ‘hydromorphology’ covers this requirement. For instance, sediment arising from land reclamation and drainage channel maintenance or the building of dams or other structures on rivers have a serious impact on fish and other aquatic plants and animals. (Sediment (clay, silt, peat) is now considered the 2nd greatest pollutant of Irish waters after phosphate.)
  • Forestry activities, particularly during planting and harvesting, can generate sediment and phosphate. However, forestry also has the potential and will be used in the future to prevent impacts, for instance, planting of native woodlands alongside streams can protect them from runoff of phosphate from adjoining fields.
  • The ‘other’ category consists of activities that on their own impact on only a small number of water bodies, such as historically polluted sites and invasive species, e.g. zebra mussels.
  • The extractive industry that has the greatest impact on water quality is ‘peat drainage and extraction’, which result in high ammonia concentrations in nearby rivers and, in some instances, sediment.

Where do we go from here?

Although it is the foundation of water management, analysing the situation to arrive at conclusions on what the water problems are, where they are arising and what is causing them is the easy part; reaching conclusions on what to do and then doing it is the real challenge. This is the challenge for the future that we must meet.

But, what about the role of ‘finding the appropriate words’? This is, in my view, critical to meeting the challenge effectively. Words in written material provide information, encode values, enable mental images, shape our views and trigger responses. Therefore, can I suggest that those that are scientists/engineers give priority to finding the appropriate words, and those that are not scientists/engineers help scientists/engineers to find the appropriate words.

“If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.”

Quote from article by George Monbiot, Guardian newspaper columnist, 9th August, 2017, https:// aug/09/forget-the-environment-new-words-lifes-wonders-language?

Donal Daly, EPA Catchments Unit

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.