There have been no significant changes to water quality between 2021 and 2022, with any improvements recorded being offset by declines elsewhere, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) water quality report for 2022 has found.

Nitrogen levels are classified by the EPA as being too high in 40% of rivers tested.

These concentrations were highest in the southeast with excess nitrogen from intensive farming on free-draining soils, the report states.

The corresponding figure for phosphorous is 28%, which rises to being too high in 36% of lakes.

It was also reported that the overall nitrogen load entering estuaries from rivers has been increasing since 2013.

Addressing nutrient levels in waterways should become a “priority”, as, until the issue is tackled, Ireland will not meet water quality targets, the EPA said.

Nitrates under pressure

The report comes as the Government gears up to defend its nitrates action programme and Ireland’s derogation from the nitrates directive.

The European Commission is to soon review whether the maximum allowable derogation stocking rate will have to be cut from 250kg N/ha to 220kg N/ha.

It is expected that Ireland will have to show that water quality trends are going in the right direction for the current derogation stocking rate to be kept.

Enforcing rules

The EPA stated that county councils and the Department of Agriculture must use the full range of tools available to them under the fifth nitrates action programme, from pushing for greater compliance to enforcing existing rules around water quality.

Addressing the decline in water quality “must be a priority for the agriculture sector,” said head of the EPA’s office of evidence and assessment Dr Eimear Cotter.

“Clean water is essential for our health and wellbeing, our economy and for wildlife. The failure to improve water quality in 2022 and over the longer term is extremely disappointing,” Cotter commented.

“We will not meet our water quality objectives until nutrient levels are reduced in those areas where they are too high.

“While we can see improvements happening in some areas, these are offset by declines elsewhere, so, overall, there is no discernible change in the biological quality of our rivers or lakes in 2022.”

The EPA’s programme manager Mary Gurrie added that a “full implementation” of the nitrates action programme is needed through “compliance promotion and targeted agricultural inspections”.