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Introduction and Context

Abundant, clean and good quality water is a fundamental cornerstone of any thriving society and is necessary for a vibrant economy and enjoyable living environment. A strong and healthy aquatic ecosystem offers vital goods and services, such as the provision of drinking water. Whilst water quality in Ireland is good in a European context, water quality has not improved in recent years. Encouraging improvements are being made in some catchments; however, these are being offset by declines in water quality in others.

The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) (WFD) requires EU Member States to achieve at least good status in all surface water and groundwater bodies by 2027. Good or high ecological status is important for sustaining healthy aquatic ecosystems to support abundant communities of fish, insects and plants. Currently, just over half of Irish surface water bodies (rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters) are achieving at least good status.

The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Water Quality in Ireland report (EPA, 2022) covering the period 2016-2021, found that 54% of our surface water had satisfactory (≥ good) ecological status. The assessment indicated that the primary challenge facing our water was the presence of too much phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N), leading to increased eutrophication in these waters (Figure 1). The European Communities Environmental Objectives (Surface Waters) Regulations 2009 set out the environmental quality standards that are required to maintain a healthy aquatic ecosystem. The environmental quality standard for good status for P is less than 0.035 mg/l of P. Ireland does not have a statutory standard for nitrogen in rivers. The EPA guideline is less than 8 mg/l of NO3 for having good ecological health for rivers and subsequent good ecological status downstream in marine waters. In 2022, 44% of Irish rivers had concentrations higher than 8 mg/l NO3. This is having a negative impact on the ecological health of both rivers and estuaries. In 2022, 25% of Irish rivers had concentrations greater that the 0.035 mg/l of P. Similar to N, this is having a negative impact on the ecological status of these rivers. High N concentrations are mostly in areas of free draining soil in the south and south east, while high P concentrations are typically found in areas with poorly draining soils.

Agriculture can also contribute to the diffuse loss of sediment, pesticides and pathogens to waters, which also contribute to the overall pressures and factors that need to be taken into account when attempting to reduce the impact of agriculture on water quality. There also needs to be a focus on reducing other pressures from agriculture including loss of sediment, contamination from pesticides and the contamination from potentially harmful pathogens.


Figure 1: Average nitrate and phosphate concentrations at Water Framework Directive river sites for 2020 to 2022 (EPA, 2022)

The Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC), in place since 1991, aims to protect surface water from pollution by agricultural sources and to promote good farming practice. The current (fifth) Nitrate Action Programme (NAP) covers the period from 1st January 2022 to the 31st of December 2025. The NAP regulations contain specific new measures to enhance the protection of surface waters from nutrient pollution arising from agricultural sources. These include dairy cow banding (linking milk yield to organic N), reduced chemical N allowances, shorter organic and chemical fertiliser spreading periods and an increased requirement for soiled water storage. Ireland has availed of a derogation from the maximum limit of 170 kg/ha of livestock manure nitrogen (organic N) as provided in the Nitrate Directive. A recent review of the Nitrates Directive resulted in a number of areas of the country
having a reduction in the derogation limit to 220 kg/ha of organic N application, while other areas remained at 250 kg/ha of organic N from 1st January 2024. There are currently approximately 7,000 grassland farmers availing of a derogation from the Nitrates Directive. While the levels of nitrate and phosphorus loss to water is highest in the areas with the most intensive agriculture, it is important to realise that sub-optimal water quality is a problem for all farmers throughout the country. The objective of the ‘Better Farming for Water’ campaign will be to reduce nutrient, sediment, pesticides and pathogen loss to all water bodies.

Agriculture in Ireland has a significant role to play in helping the country to achieve good water quality targets as set by the Water Framework Directive. However, farmers require technical support to increase their understanding of the impacts of farming on water quality and the actions to minimise the losses of nutrients, sediment and pesticides to water bodies.