15th December 2020, Dublin

The EPA released the Water Quality in 2019 report today, indicating that over one third of rivers and a quarter of lakes are failing to meet their environmental quality standards for nutrients, with serious consequences for the health of Irish waters.

Of particular concern are the increasing pollution trends since 2015, with nitrate found to be increasing in nearly half of river sites, and phosphate increasing in a quarter of sites. This is a far cry to the situation in 2015 when nitrate was increasing in only 1.4 % of our rivers, and phosphate in 4%.

While phosphate pollution can be attributed to agriculture, sewage and industry, the EPA have highlighted that the levels of nitrate pollution are strongly linked to increasing dairy intensification, with clear trends of increasing nitrogen pollution in the south and south-east of the country, the area which has seen the fastest intensification of dairy farming.

There has been a 50% increase in milk production since 2010, in line with the ambition of the Departments of Agriculture’s Foodwise 2025 strategy for agricultural expansion. This expansion is set to continue, with Teagasc recently releasing their Dairy Roadmap which outlines clear ambitions for yet further increases in milk production.

This expansion runs contrary to warnings by the EPA on the credibility of the sustainability claims of Irish agriculture, and this warning is borne out in the water data published today. Ireland should be looking to the situation in the Netherlands as a cautionary example, where the Government have had to pay farmers compensation to cull cattle in order to comply with the Nitrates Directive, with an 11% decrease in cattle numbers over 2018. 

This report is another clear indication that the water protection measures currently in place under the Nitrates Directive are failing to adequately  protect our water quality, despite increased investment in this area, with the establishment of Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP), and other measures intended to address this. Ireland has obligations under the Water Framework Directive to bring all water bodies into good status by 2027, and roughly 50% of waters are currently failing this. Given the expansionist agenda within the industry combined with the ongoing Governmental policy direction it is difficult to see how this could possibly be achieved. 

Recent trends demonstrate how unsustainable Irish intensive agriculture is, as the main driver of water pollution and biodiversity loss, and increasing GHG and ammonia emissions. Without drastic measures to reduce the pollution our water quality will continue to disimprove. The EU Farm to Fork strategy clearly signposts the way to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture across Europe, but despite all Irish ecological indicators going the wrong way, the political will to adopt this approach is still lacking, and polluted water seems to be a price the Irish state is willing to pay. 


Dr. Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer with An Taisce

‘Water quality is getting worse year on year, how dire does the situation have to get before the State takes the necessary action? The true cost of agricultural expansion needs to be accounted for, and that’s not currently happening’

‘What we’ve seen in the Netherlands is a preview of what is coming down the line in Ireland, the longer we put off the necessary measures the harder it will be for the industry to adjust. Ignoring this issue is not serving anyone.’ 

‘It’s reaching a crisis point for the health of our waters, the time for urgent and effective action is now.’


For further information, contact:

Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer, An Taisce: [email protected]