Catchment News

Urgent action needed to curb nitrogen pollution in Ireland’s waters, says EPA

On 14 July 2020 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Water Quality in 2020: An Indicators Report which provides an assessment of the quality of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwaters.

  • Ireland’s surface waters and groundwaters continue to be under pressure from human activities.
  • Just over half of Ireland’s rivers and lakes are in a satisfactory condition which means that a large number are unable to sustain healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants.
  • There has been a modest improvement in river biological quality overall with 345 rivers showing improvements and 230 rivers declining in quality.
  • Nitrogen levels in rivers, groundwater, and estuaries in the south, southeast and east of Ireland are too high and increasing. This is primarily due to agricultural activities.
  • Urgent and targeted action is required to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering our waters.

The main threat to water quality is high nutrient levels, such as phosphorus and nitrogen which come from human activities. Many rivers, groundwaters and estuaries in the south, southeast and east of Ireland are under pressure from excess nitrogen from agricultural activities. Almost half our rivers (47%), a quarter of our groundwaters (24%) and one fifth of our estuarine and coastal water bodies (21%) have nitrogen levels that are too high. The levels impact the ability of these waters to sustain healthy ecosystems and cause nuisance algal blooms in our estuaries. High nitrogen levels, above the drinking water standard, can pose a risk to human health.

2020 Water Indicators infographic

Commenting on the report, EPA Director of Evidence and Assessment, Dr Eimear Cotter said:

“Our water quality is currently under threat with nitrogen pollution from agriculture causing particular pressure in parts of the south, southeast and east of the country. Rivers such as the Bandon, Lee, Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow and Slaney have nitrogen levels that are too high with significant implications for the marine environments they flow into. We urgently need to address nitrogen pollution so that we can protect and restore the water quality in these areas. If we do not substantially reduce nitrogen inputs to our rivers, and ultimately our marine environment, we are in danger of further deteriorations in water quality and losing our excellent coastal water quality.”

Dr Eimear Cotter, EPA Director of Evidence and Assessment

Just over half of Ireland’s rivers and lakes are in satisfactory biological quality which means that a large number are unable to sustain healthy ecosystems for fish, insects and plants. While there are encouraging signs of improvements in the areas prioritised for action in the River Basin Management Plan, a lot more needs to be done to improve water quality. In 2019 and 2020, 345 rivers showed improvements in quality, including an increase in the number of high-quality river sites, however, 230 rivers declined in quality.

“While there has been an overall net improvement in the biological quality of rivers monitored in 2019 and 2020, EPA found that 230 rivers declined in quality. It is a key requirement of the Water Framework Directive that we protect water quality and prevent deterioration. The scale of declines is off-setting the improvements and hampering progress towards improving water quality. It is essential that action is taken in both the next River Basin Management Plan and the Nitrates Action Programme to continue improvements whilst also preventing further deterioration.’

Mary Gurrie, EPA Water Programme Manager

The report is available on the EPA website and the accompanying data used in the water quality assessments are available on An infographic is also available. 

Further information: Emily Williamson/ Aileen Moon, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours) or

Notes to Editor

Water Body: A water body in this report is an area of water which is usually either the whole part of a lake or coastal water, or a section of a river or an estuary (e.g. Lough Ree is one water body whereas the River Lee is divided into nine water bodies for monitoring purposes).

Nitrate: Nitrate is a form of nitrogen which is a nutrient and essential for plant growth. Too much nitrogen in a water body can lead to the over-growth of plants and algae that outcompete and displace other flora and fauna. This excessive growth can also cause oxygen depletion and damage the ecology of our water bodies. Our estuaries and coastal waters are particularly sensitive to high nitrogen concentrations. The main source of excess nitrate in the environment is agriculture, with waste water also contributing. Nitrate concentrations above the Drinking Water Standard can pose a risk to human health, particularly for young children.

Phosphorus: Phosphorus is a nutrient which is essential for plant growth. As with nitrogen, too much phosphorus in a water body can lead to the over-growth of plants and algae which disturb the ecosystem. Excess phosphorus is a particular concern for the ecological health of rivers and lakes. The main sources of excess phosphorus in the environment are agriculture and waste water.

Water Framework Directive (WFD): The Water Framework Directive is the overarching directive to protect and improve water quality across Europe. The main objective of the WFD is to achieve at least good status in all waterbodies by protecting water bodies that are at high and good status and restoring waterbodies which are not.

River Basin Management Plan: The River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 sets out the actions that will be taken to improve and protect water quality up to the end of 2021. A new plan will be published in 2022. Further information about the National River Basin Management Plan is available on the Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government website.

Prioritised Areas for Action (PAAs): There are 190 Prioritised Areas for Action (PAAs) identified in the current River Basin Management Plan. The water bodies in these areas are subjected to targeted action aimed at bringing about an improvement in water quality.

Nitrates Action Programme (NAP): The Nitrates Directive has the objective of reducing water pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources and preventing further such pollution. According to the directive Member States must develop and implement an action programme to reduce and prevent such pollution. A review of Ireland’s NAP is currently under way. Further information about the NAP is available on the Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government website.

Further information on the EPA’s assessment of the reductions in nitrogen needed to achieve water quality objectives can be found here A collaborative EPA, LAWPRO and Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government website that is used to share data, information and resources on water in Ireland. It includes water quality assessments undertaken by the EPA for the Water Framework Direc

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 4,829 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives and measures 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 that will be implemented after public consultation and sign off by the Minister.