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Water Quality and Catchment Management

Monday March 22nd 2021

LAWPRO explore the importance of water quality to farmers and explain how water quality is measured and where the public can access information on the streams and rivers of Ireland. Videos will include the following;

Past, Present and Future of Water Quality in Ireland Podcast

In this episode of the Environment Edge podcast, Jenny Deakin EPA catchment unit manager joins Teagasc’s Cathal Somers and Deirdre Glynn to discuss the past, present & future of water quality in Ireland and how climate change will challenge us all.

In the second half of the podcast, Teagasc’s Head of Environment Knowledge Transfer, Pat Murphy, explains why he believes farmers are up to the challenge of improving water quality through research, advisory, education, collaboration and improved efficiency on the farm.

Why Water Quality is Important

Water connects every part of our landscape; mountains, bogs, woodlands, farmlands, towns, beaches are all linked by the rain that falls on them and the rivers flowing through them.  Those rivers support an abundance of life and there is an intricate web of life thriving in these natural river habitats.  The tiny fish eggs, insect larva, worms and beetles in the gravels, the fish in the currents and pools and the birds and small mammals along the river bank, are all in balance and dependent on each other.  Rivers also reflect the health and biodiversity of the wider environment; where we see a river that has a rich variety of native plant and animal species, we can expect a healthy thriving environment alongside it. 

Healthy waters support our economy; agriculture needs a constant supply of fresh clean water for animals, crops, for dairy and other food processing.  Much of our tourist industry and the natural amenities that have become so important to us during Covid 19 (our beaches, Blueways etc) also depend on clean waters.  Similarly, we need safe and secure waters to supply industry and our drinking water needs.  It is important that we understand what causes damage to our waters and work together to protect them.

The Local Authority Waters Programme was established to protect and restore our rivers by working with communities and to investigate the causes of poor water quality.  They work with a range of stakeholders including Local Authorities, the Environmental Protection Agency, Inland Fisheries Ireland, Irish Water, and many others.  One of their key partners is the agricultural community including Teagasc and the dairy co-ops. 


Water Quality Indicators - Kick Sampling

Macro-invertebrates are small aquatic animals such as insect larva, snails, worms, beetles etc and are excellent indicators of water quality. Where rivers are unpolluted there is a great variety and abundance of these species.  However, where a river has excessive amounts of nutrients and other pollutants, the numbers and types of macroinvertebrates is usually lower and many of the rare and sensitive species are absent.

Scientists can examine the macroinvertebrates that live in the bed of a river and the health of a river through a sampling process called kick sampling.  Scientists sample the macroinvertebrates by kicking up the gravels on the bed of the river and catching everything that is disturbed in a net.  Kick sampling is a relatively quick process, it can be completed on the riverbank at several locations and allow the scientists to move through the river system and examine water quality. 

In this short clip, LAWPRO’s catchment scientists, Philip and Jim demonstrate kick sampling in a river in Co. Waterford

Water Quality Indicators - Chemical Sampling

This short video gives a short description of a number of indicators other than macro-invertebrates that are extremely important in terms of determining water quality.

The first example is that the amount and type of aquatic vegetation observed in the waterbody can indicate elevated nutrients. Plant overgrowth leads to low oxygen levels and impacts the invertebrates living there. Invasive species, sediment build up, and macro algae are all very important indicators and are recorded by catchment scientists at each site.

All this information needs to be gathered so a full picture can be made on the water quality in a waterbody. In turn this allows local advice to be given to protect and improve our waterways.


Water Quality in your area/Accessing Catchments

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) operate a number of water quality monitoring programmes to assess the condition of waters in Ireland. The outcome these monitoring programmes is available to see on the EPA interactive map.The map can be accessed on the website www.catchments.ie

Ireland has more than 73,000 km of river channels, 12,000 lakes and 7,500 km of coastline. The quality of these waters is monitored by the EPA. Waters are assessed under the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD) and are classified into five quality classes (status):

  • High
  • Good
  • Moderate
  • Poor
  • Bad

‘High’ is when the water is not polluted at all, and ‘bad’ is when the water is most polluted.[1]

The outcome these monitoring programmes is available to see on the EPA interactive map on www.catchments.ie The video below shows how to use the interactive map on www.catchments.ie to find out about water quality in your area.  

For more information contact your local Community Water Officer http://watersandcommunities.ie/

[1] Taken from the EPA’s River, Lake & Marine Monitoring Plain English Fact Sheets Water Quality Environmental Protection Agency http://epa.ie/

Farmer Testimonial

The Glenaboy river in county Waterford is currently at Moderate ecological status. The river catchment is in a Priority Area for Action (PAA) for the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP). Find out how farmers and ASSAP advisors work together to improve water quality.

The Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) relies heavily on collaboration between catchment scientists, advisors, and farmers to improve water quality in a Priority Area for Action (PAA). The Glenaboy river is a PAA in county Waterford and it is currently at Moderate ecological status. This means the river is one step below the target of good status for water quality. It also means that measures will be required to ensure the river is protected from sources of pollutants.

An assessment carried out by the catchment scientist – Philip Murphy (LAWPRO) concluded that elevated nutrients are the significant issue in the river, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus levels. The sources of these nutrients were coming from both urban runoff and agricultural pressures. A report was compiled by the scientist and passed onto the Waterford ASSAP advisor Cathal Somers.

ASSAP advisors are available to work with farmers in the Priority Area for Action, offering a free and confidential service to help farmers tackle the issues. Laura Forbes, a dairy farmer availed of the ASSAP service and worked with Cathal to form a plan for the farm. 

Laura and Cathal worked closely on addressing the issues identified by Philip. Together they came up with several measures that are expected to reduce the risk of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous entering the Glenaboy river. The measures undertaken by Laura included relocating a drinking trough and closing off an animal access point. Both measures are expected to reduce the risk of nutrients (including nitrogen and phosphorus) entering the river through animal excrement whilst also have the added benefit of reducing sediment and pathogens entering the waterway. Another measure undertaken by Laura on her farm was the purchase of a Low Emission Slurry Spreader (LESS), the plan is to reduce the amount of chemical nitrogen being spread by more targeted use of LESS.

Laura soil tests each year to ensure the fertility on the farm is correct. She spreads lime where needed to ensure the soil pH is 6.3 to 6.5 on the farm, this is important to ensure nutrients are not locked up and improves nitrogen use efficiency.

Timing of nitrogen application is important to Laura, ensuring the grass is given the correct amount of nitrogen for the grass growth rate. Particular attention is needed at the shoulders of the year where growth is reduced. 

Get more information on Water Quality Week here

List of ASSAP Advisors is available here

ASSAP Service

ASSAP – Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advice Programme works with farmers in a free and confidential advisory service to help improve water quality. Priority areas for action (PAA) are being targeted across the country to improve water quality.

In Ireland all water policy and management is led by the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and under this, the country has been set a target of achieving ‘good status’ for all its waters. The EPA has identified priority catchments or ‘areas for action’ across the country where the status of the water is at risk of falling from a range of both agrricultural and non-agricultural pressures.

In these priority areas, ASSAP is focussing its resources on addressing agricultural pressures. Where an agricultural pressure is identified the farmers in the area will receive the offer of a free farm visit from an ASSAP advisor.

In the video below Peter Comer, Teagasc ASSAP Adviser, Mayo describes the setting up of the ASSAP service, the reasons why it was needed and how it is working so far. In the background Lawpro Catchment Scientist Ailbhe Douglas is taking a kick sample to determine water quality from a biological point of view; chemical data is also recorded. 

Find out more about ASSAP here