The Republic of Ireland has a land area of about 70,000 km2. At the time of the 1991 census the population was 3.5 million and population density accordingly just exceed 50 inhabitants per km2. There are some 75 rivers, including important tributaries, with catchment areas above 130 km2, and there are a further 167 minor rivers and streams whose catchments vary in size from just under 130 km2 to 10 km2. In all, more than 13,000 km of major river channels and tributaries can be found as depicted on the Ordnance Survey Catchment Map. The Shannon is the largest river with a catchment area of 11,800 km2. The second largest river system is that of the Barrow, the Nore, and the Suir rivers. The Shannon and the Barrow-Nore-Suir river systems together drain over one third of the area of the country. The Irish lake database lists over 4,000 lakes and ponds and their combined total area is approximately 2 per cent of the total country area. In Ireland there are some 58 lakes with a surface area greater than 1 km2. The Irish coastline is deeply indented, particularly in the west, and its length, including estuaries, is 5,630 km. Estuarine and coastal areas are significant receiving waters in that over 80 per cent of the estimated waste loads from urban sewage and from industry enter tidal waters. The ten largest cities and towns in Ireland are situated adjacent estuaries or the coast. There are 18 estuaries, or combinations of estuaries, with contributing catchment areas of more than 500 km2.

Involved institutions and coordination of monitoring

The Minister for the Environment has the overall responsibility for the development and implementation of environmental policy in Ireland. The Department of the Environment formulates the relevant legislative framework to maintain satisfactory regulatory and monitoring systems for environmental protection and to secure the provision of infrastructural services necessary for both environmental and developmental purposes. The responsibilities of the Department regarding environmental information are the result of policy needs, statutory requirements and international obligations. In general, the responsibility for implementing the monitoring of the ambient environment rests with the local authorities, ie. the county councils and the county borough councils of which there are thirty-four in all. The local authorities operate under the aegis of the Department of the Environment.

Environmental Protection Agency

Since the early 1970s An Foras Forbartha (AFF) was in charge of advisory and support services to the Department of the Environment and local authorities, a role that from 1988 has been taken over by the Environmental Research Unit (ERU). In July 1993, these organizations were abolished and their environmental staff and facilities were transferred to the newly established Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition to its advisory and supporting role, the EPA has wide powers within the area of environmental protection. The EPA is an independent agency that was set up according to the Environmental Protection Agency Act of 1992. Its wide range of functions includes an overall co-ordination and supervisory role relating to environmental monitoring, including the monitoring of surface waters. In particular, the Agency is required to prepare a national monitoring programme and to identify the organizations to undertake its implementation. The setting-up of the EPA has not altered the fact that the primary responsibility for the monitoring of the ambient environment rests with the local authorities. However, the majority of the national river monitoring programme is undertaken by the EPA on behalf of the local authorities.

The drafting of the national monitoring programme is well-advanced at the time of writing. When the draft has been prepared, consultations will have to take place. Not until this process is completed will the programme be finally adopted. Aspects of the former monitoring programme are, however, carried on and the description presented here therefore reflects this phase of transition.

Three of the EPA's Regional Inspectorates, namely the laboratories in Kilkenny, Monaghan and Castlebar, implement monitoring programmes on the quality of surface waters on behalf of groups of local authorities in the south-east, north-east and western Ireland, respectively. The EPA has been undertaking a programme of laboratory intercalibration for quality assurance purposes. The EPA Regional Inspectorate, Dun Laoghaire, undertakes more specialised investigations at the national level, on eg. riverine inputs to tidal waters, acidification, etc. The EPA is also required to develop an environmental data storage system. A recent study has given the EPA the central role in the proposed development of an Irish integrated environmental information system. This is consistent also with its role as National Focal Point for the European Environment Agency.

Department of the Marine / Marine Institute

The Department of the Marine implements a monitoring programme mainly through the work of its Fisheries Research Centre and this role will devolve to the recently established Marine Institute. The monitoring programmes have been carried out with the following objectives: (1) ensuring the quality of fish for human consumption; (2) identifying sources of pollution; (3) determining temporal trends and spatial distribution of contaminants in offshore, coastal and estuarine environments. An important aim of the programmes is to comply with various international agreements. Quality assurance activities include participation in the EU-funded QUASIMEME quality control programme.

Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland is a national organization having regulatory, monitoring and advisory responsibilities in matters pertaining to ionising radiation. The Institute monitors radioactive contamination in the environment, on land, sea, and in the air. The environmental monitoring programme includes measurement of natural and artificial radionuclides in, for example, fish, shellfish, coastline and deep sea sediments, seawater and seaweeds.

National monitoring activities


The physico-chemical quality of rivers is monitored by the local authorities or by EPA Regional Inspectorates on behalf of the local authorities. The R1 national monitoring programme (Table 3.8) includes mainly large rivers and their main tributaries with approximately 1,500 sampling sites in 300 rivers. The aim is to obtain a sampling frequency of 12 times annually, the water samples being analyzed for indicators of organic pollution, nutrients and, as regards some, metals. The biological quality of rivers is monitored according to a national programme operated by the EPA (R2). The biological quality of rivers has been assessed every three to five years since 1971. The R3 monitoring activity is an annual recording of fish kills aimed at assessing their causes.

Table 3.8: Irish national surface water monitoring programmes.

No. Name Responsible institution Variables Period of operation &
Sampling Frequency (SF)
Data & national
Rivers and streams
R1 Physico-chemical Surveys of River Water Quality



Local Authorities

Water: Physical and chemical variables at some sampling sites measurements of metals Since 1970-71

SF: varying (12/yr)

Nation-wide. Mainly large rivers and primary tributaries Database: EPA & local authorities.

Reporting: every three years by EPA

R2 National Biological Survey of River Water Quality. EPA Water: TEMPW, OX


: INVERT, MAPHYT, Filamentous algae, Siltation
Since 1971

Every 3rd year or more frequently

Nation-wide. 3000 sampling sites in 1200 rivers and streams Database: EPA

Reporting: Every 3rd year by EPA

R3 The Recording of Fish Kills DoM Fish kills and if possible, their causes 1971-1974 and 1983 to date Nation-wide.

No specific network

Reporting annually by DoM
L1 Lake Water Quality Monitoring Programme.

(a)In situ measurements.

(b)Remote sensing surveys


Local Authorities, RPII, CFB

(a) Water: Chemical & physical variables

(b) Remote sensing

(a)Since the late 1960s

SF: from several times per year to 1/3-5yr

(b) 1989-1990

(a) Nation-wide. Large lakes and representative smaller lakes. 170 lakes.

(b) Nation-wide. 360 lakes

Data and reporting: EPA & local authorities. Every three years
Coastal and marine areas
M1 General Quality of

Estuarine and Coastal Receiving Waters Including Nutrients.


Local authorities

Water: Physical and chemical variables Since 1992.

1 winter survey and a number of surveys in summer

Nation-wide. Significant estuaries & coastal areas and the Western Irish Sea Reporting: 1/4 yr by EPA, DoM & local Authorities
M2 Metals and organic micropollutants in the Estuarine and Coastal Environment. EPA, FRC/DoM (MI), Local Authorities Water: organic micropollutants

Sediment & biota

: heavy metals & organic micropollutants
Since 1993

One major estuary per year in a 5-6 year cycle.

Trend monitoring of metals in mussels



Reporting by FRC to the JMG
M3 Radioactivity Monitoring of the Irish Marine Environment. RPII Radionucleides in water, sediment, & biota Since the early 1970s.

SF: 2-4/yr.

Nation-wide. Greatest density of sites where the impact of the Sellafield facility is greatest. Reporting: 1/2yr by RPII
M4 Environmental Quality of Amenity and Recreation Areas, in particular, Bathing Waters DoE

Local Authorities

Water: Physical, chemical, & microbiological variables Since 1979

SF: 1/1-2 week from mid-May to ultimo August

Nation-wide. A total of 92 important marine bathing areas National reporting annually by DoE
M5 Bacteriological Quality of Shellfish Waters. DoM Faecal coli in water and shellfish. Since 1981

SF: 2 weeks intervals throughout the year

Mainly W and SW coast. 200 locations in 50 coastal inlets DoM
M6 Monitoring of Human Food Sources. DoM/MI, (FRC) Water: Physical variables


: metals & organic micropollutants


: HG
Since 1992

SF: Annually


18 shellfish growing waters and 5 important fishing ports


EPA: Environmental Protection Agency; DoM: Department of the Marine; RPII: Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland; MI: Marine Institute; FRC: Fisheries Research Centre; JMG: Joint Monitoring Group; DoE: Department of the Environment; CFB: Central Fisheries Board.

Lakes and reservoirs

A national lake monitoring programme is being developed at the present time by the EPA in a situation where there has been only a limited monitoring programme up to this. The EPA is continuing the development of a monitoring programme for lakes using aircraft-borne remote sensing. In-situ monitoring of selected lakes and reservoirs is undertaken by local authorities, by the EPA on their behalf, and by the Central Fisheries Board.

Estuarine and marine areas

Estuarine and marine areas are monitored by local authorities, by the EPA on behalf of local authorities, by the Department of the Marine (DoM)/Marine Institute, and by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. The M1 national marine monitoring programme is a combination of the EPA and DoM programmes. The EPA programme aims at working out a general assessment of the quality of Irish estuarine and coastal waters, while the DoM programme concentrates on the Irish Sea. M1 is in particular focused on the impact of organic waste and nutrients. The M2 monitoring programme focuses on toxic contaminants (heavy metals and organic micropollutants) in the Irish estuarine and coastal environments. The M3 programme concerns monitoring of radioactivity in the Irish marine environment. The M4 monitoring programme focuses on bathing water quality, while M5 and M6 assess the quality of seafood used for human consumption. Furthermore, marine biological monitoring is undertaken by the FRC/DoM in a number of separate programmes of varying intensity and duration. These programmes includes assessment of phytoplankton and zoobenthos in association with a number of physical/chemical variables, often heavy metals and organic micropollutants.


Geographic coverage


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Filed under: surface water
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