Tomorrow (Tuesday, September 28) the public consultation phase of a new plan to improve Ireland’s water quality – the draft River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2022-2027 – will open.

In response to recent water quality trends, the plan proposes a “new level of ambition”.

There are over 100 measures outlined to address impacts on water quality, covering areas such as: nutrient pollution from agricultural land; the performance of urban waste-water infrastructure; and a programme of restoring free-flowing waters to improve biodiversity in rivers.

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien and Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform Malcolm Noonan held a meeting with members of An Fóram Uisce (The Water Forum) today on the matter.

This plan will set out the environmental objectives that must be achieved to put in place the measures that will “protect and restore our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters by the end of 2027, together with actions to ensure those objectives are achieved”. 

Under the Water Framework Directive (WFD), Ireland is required to produce a River Basin Management Plan every six years to protect and improve water quality.

For the first time since these plans started to be developed, there are now detailed estimates of the scale of mitigation measures required to “significantly improve water quality and most importantly where those measures should be deployed”.

The estimates of the scale of the key mitigation measures needed include:

  • 2,500km of riverside interception measures (e.g. 12,500ha of native woodlands). This is a cumulative length representing 3% of all river channels;
  • Minimum of 20,000ha of organic soil rewetting that could be prioritised to deliver water, climate and biodiversity benefits;
  • At least a 50% reduction in nitrogen losses to waters from agriculture. Modelling work is underway to determine what this means for chemical nitrogen fertiliser reductions and where those reductions need to take place;
  • Potentially between 2,000 and 7,000 structures/barriers on rivers requiring removal or modification;
  • A sustained high level of investment by Irish Water in waste-water infrastructure to address deficits and future-growth needs.

Significant Pressures

Agriculture is the most common significant pressure impacting 1,000 water bodies, followed by hydromorphology – physical changes to habitat conditions (442); forestry (233); and urban waste water (208).

The overall number of waterbodies impacted by agriculture has increased by 223 since the start of the second cycle River Basin Management Plan and this represents the greatest increase in any individual significant pressure type.

The number of waterbodies impacted by urban waste water has decreased by 83 waterbodies since the second cycle and this represents the greatest decrease in any individual significant pressure type.

According to the plan, a “coordinated response is now required” to deliver significant improvements across multiple pressures.

Goals for agriculture

Ireland’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) National Strategic Plan will have a “critical role” to play in this regard, as will the current review of the Nitrates Action Programme.

To protect and restore water quality there are a number of goals that must be reached, according to the plan:

  • Reducing excessive agricultural nitrogen losses from high-risk free-draining soils to groundwater in agriculturally-intensive areas (reduce N losses by up to 50% to water);
  • Preventing instream habitat damage arising from land drainage and river channel drainage;
  • Reduction/elimination of point source pollution from farms;
  • Eliminating exceedances of pesticide standards in drinking water supplies;
  • Protecting and restoring valuable and sensitive high-status water catchments;
  • Reducing phosphate and sediment losses from poorly-draining soils through overland flow to surface waters.

“Achieving these goals will require new stricter requirements and increased compliance with existing environmental regulations, particularly the Good Agricultural Practice [GAP] Regulations,” the plan states.

“This will require not only increased knowledge and understanding of the requirements, but also increased enforcement of the requirements.

“Local authorities are undertaking a review of their resource needs within their water environmental function and this includes enforcement activities.

“Under the draft Nitrates Action Programme [NAP], there is potential for the dairy industry to support the achievement of water quality objectives through financial incentives similar to the approach taken in other member states and successfully employed in Ireland to achieve compliance with the Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme.

“Representatives of the dairy industry have been engaged in bilateral discussions with the Nitrates Expert Group about the role the industry must play in ensuring their suppliers operate in an environmentally-sustainable manner.

“As a key stakeholder group within the agricultural sector, dairy co-ops have a responsibility to their 18,000 farmers as well as to Irish citizens to engage in the NAP review process and bring forward proposals to help reduce nutrient loses to water and the wider environment and improve the environmental performance of the industry.”

According to the plan, the Dairy Sustainability Ireland Working Group has commenced a project to look at options for driving nitrogen reductions at both national and catchment scales.

The project is at its initial stages at present and its main focus is on:

  • Driving improvements in slurry management;
  • Promoting compliance with GAP Regulation requirements;
  • Change management strategy to drive N reductions;
  • Communications/knowledge transfer programme, linked to ASSAP;
  • Major behavioural change programme around slurry storage.


The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows that 53% of surface waters (rivers, lakes, estuarine waters) are in ‘good’ or ‘high’ ecological status.

47% are in ‘unsatisfactory’ ecological status. 92% of groundwater bodies are in good chemical and quantitative status.

EPA assessment of biological river water quality in 2019 and 2020 indicates some recovery in water quality, with more rivers showing improvements (345) than declines (230).

Minister Noonan said he encourages everyone to participate in the public consultation as this will help to “inform and improve the plans and programmes and wider policy developments that impact our waters”.

The consultation closes on March 31, 2022.