Nitrate Pollution: Is enough being done to save Ireland’s water?

min read time
2022-09-14 12:22:28

In an attempt to reduce the nitrate pollution of Irish water and meet EU regulations around nitrate pollution in water, the government has recently introduced its proposals for a Nitrate Action Plan (NAP).

The original plan appears to outline some helpful actions to reduce the problem, but others close to the matter are arguing that enough isn’t being done. The real question is – is enough being done to save Ireland’s water?


What does nitrate pollution currently look like in Ireland?

Nitrates are the biggest pollutant of Irish water. That includes the rivers you walk by on your summer walks, the lake in your local park or any other public waterway that runs through or sits within our borders. This poses a threat to water quality across the country with the water we use daily and surrounding biodiversity at risk.

Recent reports from the Environmental Protection Agency show that over half of the waterbodies in Ireland are of an unsatisfactory level, and the situation is worsening. Nitrate pollution plays a big part in this with 47% of rivers and 24% of groundwater sources polluted with unsafe levels of nitrogen. This is a problem that needs urgent attention.



What is the impact of nitrate pollution in water?

Nitrates are existent in most water sources before treatment. They play an important part in the growth of plants and the development of biodiversity. However, the presence of an abundance of nitrates in water can have catastrophic impacts on water quality within society.

Excess levels of nitrates along with phosphorous can accelerate eutrophication – the process of where a body of water, or parts of it, become excessively enriched with minerals. Eutrophication progressively encourages the build-up of growth in aquatic plants. Algae growth can cause visible impacts where algal blooms occur, and bodies of water turn green in colour which can deplete oxygen levels within the water. Eutrophication due to excessive nitrate pollution can also impact the amenity of local waterways.

The depletion of oxygen levels has an impact on the quality; nitrate pollution also has this degrading impact. Continuous eutrophication and nitrate pollution mean the safety and quality of Irish water are threatened as water requires more resources because it is harder to treat.


How are nitrates polluted into Irish water?

Nitrates naturally exist within water, but excessive levels are what cause water to become polluted. Surface water can become polluted by nitrates in many ways including fertilisers, wastewater, and natural conditions. Plant fertilisers are a key culprit in causing nitrate pollution because of the high nitrate levels they contain. This then spreads into our waterways or bodies of water because of any potential waste or natural spreading.

Waste from humans and animals is also a possible nitrate contaminant of water as the body flushes out any harmful nitrates in excrement. This creates problems for nitrate levels in water if wastewater is being disposed of or polluted into public waterways.

There are many other ways that nitrates pollute water, but fertiliser from agriculture is a key area that is being stamped down by the government. This is shown in the recently announced Nitrates Action Programme (NAP).




What is the Nitrates Action Programme?

The recently announced action programme is the fifth of its kind, as Ireland looks to coincide with EU regulations. In the government’s overview of the new NAP, they state this is part of a new strategy that needs to be adopted to deliver true sustainability. Alongside global targets for countries to become more sustainable and self-developed goals, The European Green Deal is a key influential policy which is encouraging member countries to take a stand at improving water quality, and biodiversity and cutting pollution. This is noted within the NAP.

The Nitrates Action Programme undergoes a series of consultations with relevant parties and stakeholders to introduce a series of measures and ambitions to reduce and rectify the pollution of nutrients in Irish waters. Consultations with the Nitrates Experts Group, the EU commission, the public and other stakeholders have taken place before the most recent programme was published.

These consultations with and submissions from relevant stakeholders are then analysed to influence a set of impactful, achievable and realistic measures to reduce the threat of nitrate and phosphorus pollution in our water and surrounding areas.


The Fifth Nitrates Action Programme – what does it plan to achieve?

The main aims of the fifth NAP are simple – to reduce the number of nutrients found in our water and to regulate the methods and ways this is happening. As part of the Nitrates Action Programme, the government are looking to introduce a set of measures which will introduce new regulations to counteract the problem we face with nitrate pollution in our waters

Measures are characterised into two groups – measures that will be introduced as part of the New Good Agricultural Practice Regulations (GAP) 2022 and Non-GAP regulations. These measures are determined by their scope within the Good Agricultural Practice Regulations and are added to a series of measures which currently stand following the fourth NAP.

The main areas of focus the government are looking to target in the latest GAP regulations include:

  • Slurry and soil water storage and management.
  • Nitrogen excretion rates from livestock
  • Control of chemical fertilisers and a reduction in nitrogen content
  • The management of sewage and industrial sludges
  • Green cover on Tillage ground
  • The number of crude proteins that are fed to livestock
  • Organic matter content within soils
  • Soil testing
  • Management of grazing land

Non-GAP measures that the government are looking to introduce include:

  • Introduction of a register for chemical fertiliser sales
  • Improving compliance and enforcement
  • Review of the Agricultural Sustainability Report and Advisory Programme

You can find the full extent of the Fifth Nitrates Action Programme and accompanying documents on the government website here.

It is clear there are some key areas and influencing factors the government are trying to clamp down on, but some are asking, is the government doing enough?


What do other organisations think of the government’s efforts to combat nitrate pollution?

Independent organisations, enquiries and articles have all registered concern and criticism that enough isn’t being done to combat the risk of poor water quality in Ireland and that EU laws are not being met on causes like nitrate pollution. The EPA released a statement in July 2021, claiming that not enough is being done and that urgent action is required to ensure that there isn’t a dramatic reduction in water quality across Ireland and that the country is following EU regulations and legislation.

One of the key statements within their news release on the subject was: “Nitrogen levels in rivers, groundwater, and estuaries in the south, southeast and east of Ireland are too high and increasing. This is primarily due to agricultural activities.”

These statements have been met with further backlash following the release of the Fifth Nitrate Action Programme. An Taisce has spoken out against what the government is doing to combat nitrate pollution and that includes criticism of the latest NAP. In a statement released earlier this year, the organisation announced its disdain at the draft fifth NAP by listing 6 key issues which aren’t addressed strongly enough or have completely failed to address.

The 6 areas that An Taisce believe the government have failed to address in the draft NAP include:

  1. Fertiliser reduction
  2. Nitrogen loads per hectare
  3. Compliance
  4. Nutrient management planning
  5. Banding
  6. Derogation Assessments

Before making some recommendations on what should be included within the fifth NAP, An Taisce likens the worsening situation in Ireland to the Netherlands. A Dutch court in 2019 found that the country was in breach of EU legislation by not doing enough to reduce excess nitrogen in vulnerable natural areas. The main causes for this were agricultural and industrial processes. As water quality continues to deteriorate, it is clear we can’t continue on this trajectory.

To turn back time and improve the situation, An Taisce recommended ten changes to the Nitrate Action Programme which it believes can make a real difference.

You can find out more about An Taisce’s recommendations in their statement here: Ireland's Water Quality and fifth Nitrates Action Programme 2022 (


Is enough being done to combat Ireland’s nitrate pollution problem?

The current picture isn’t looking good. With nearly half of our rivers are deemed to have an unsatisfactory level of nitrates and more than a third of rivers recording higher levels of nitrates. Problems are arising in the south of the country with 85% of the nitrates that pollute these rivers coming from agricultural practices which shows that the situation is showing no sign of upheaval.

The proposed draft for the NAP introduces new measures that are likely to make an impact and that is surely welcomed but when organisations are critical of the measures and the Nitrates Action Programme is in its 5th edition and things aren’t on the up – it shows there is more to be done.

As water is such a valuable resource that we use every day, we must protect our water to avoid a water quality crisis.