European targets for improving Northern Ireland water quality by 2027 will not be met, report says

European targets for improving water quality in Northern Ireland’s rivers and lakes by 2027 will not be met, a new Audit Office report has said.

Auditor General Dorinnia Carville’s report on water quality said the water framework directive, published in 2000, set targets for bodies of water across Europe.

This included a target for all rivers and lakes in Northern Ireland to achieve good ecological status by 2027.

The auditor’s report said that despite initiatives to improve water quality, in 2021 less than a third of Northern Ireland’s rivers had good ecological status, representing no improvement since 2015.

In the case of lakes, only 14% of were classified as having good ecological status in 2021 (down from around 24% in 2015).

The report said on average more than twice as many rivers and lakes in the Republic of Ireland achieved good or better ecological status than in Northern Ireland.

The Audit Office report said alongside testing of ecological status, the chemical status of rivers and lakes is also measured.

Since 2015, enhanced monitoring requirements have been introduced.

As a consequence of this enhanced monitoring, no lakes or rivers in Northern Ireland currently have good chemical status, the report stated.

The auditor said that continuing issues around water quality are partly attributable to excess nutrients accumulating in rivers and lakes.

The report said: “It is generally accepted that the nature of some practices within the agriculture sector exerts particular pressures on water quality.”

However, it said that current approaches taken by the public sector to manage these practices have not been effective.

Between 2017 and 2021, 373 incidents linked to agriculture were reported that were deemed to be of high or medium severity.

The report noted about 1% of farms in Northern Ireland are inspected each year by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

It said while this is in line with regulatory requirements, this 1% sample size contrasts with the 77% of total land area in Northern Ireland which is accounted for by the agriculture sector.

The report said in 2022 one in four pollution incidents in Northern Ireland were linked to the agriculture sector.

It also found half of all water pollution incidents linked to agriculture occurred in the Neagh Bann River Basin District.

Within this district, most incidents were in the River Blackwater area, with farm effluent mixture, silage and cattle waste the three pollutants most frequently detected.

The report also considered water pollution incidents arising as a result of the activities of Northern Ireland Water, which provides water and sewerage services in the region.

It said while pollution incidents linked to NI Water’s operations account for one in eight of all pollution incidents, the total number of incidents declined by 43% between 2017 and 2023.

The report added that Northern Ireland remains the only region of the UK where sampling to assess compliance of wastewater treatment continues to be pre-announced.

Efforts to reform this were announced by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in 2016, but will not formally take effect until 2027 at the earliest.

Ms Carville said: “There have been long-standing concerns over water quality in Northern Ireland.

“Further work is required across a number of areas to ensure that these water sources are protected from damage and that steps are taken to achieve the required regulatory standards.

“Better and sustained engagement with stakeholders including the agriculture sector is needed and consideration should be given to enhancing the effectiveness of regulatory and inspection work.

“Better use of data will also help, both in helping target testing at areas most at risk, and to help benchmark Northern Ireland with regions experiencing better outcomes in regards to water quality.”

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