Changing Water Policy in the Republic of Ireland
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Ulster
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Physical Geography and Environmental Geoscience
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management, Soil Sciences
Summary of the impact
Research undertaken by Professor Phil Jordan on nutrient pollution from
land to waters has led to significant changes in government policy and in
expectations for Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Waste Directive (WD)
compliance in Ireland. The WFD is European wide legislation requiring that
all water-bodies should be of at least good ecological status by 2015. His
research has provided unequivocal scientific evidence that bio-physical
lag times preclude the achievement of WFD water quality targets from
diffuse source pollution by 2015. This has led to targets for good water
quality in all River Basin Management Plans being extended without threat
of European fines. Further, inclusion of Jordan's research on the specific
environmental risk of rural point source pollution in assessments of
septic tank system risk has resulted in the overturning of a European
Court ruling under the Waste Directive, and the consequent lifting of
daily fines of €19,000.
Since being appointed as a lecturer at the University of Ulster in 2001,
Professor Phil Jordan's research has specifically focused on the history,
processes and policies of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution in
rural catchments and the freshwater eutrophication process.
Palaeolimnological work in the Oona Water tributary of the Irish
cross-border Blackwater River (Jordan et al., 2001) demonstrated that a
modern conceptual model of soil phosphorus accumulation, transfer and
pollution was valid over a c.100 year period; and the rate of historical
lake eutrophication was the same at the small (c.1km2) lake
catchment scale as the very large Lough Neagh (c.5,000 km2)
lake catchment scale in Northern Ireland.
This work in the Oona Water catchment was further augmented with the NERC
funded "Catchment Hydrology and Sustainable Management (CHASM)"
infrastructure project and the Irish Environmental Protection Agency
funded "Eutrophication from Agriculture Sources" project, a conceptual
framework for both diffuse and point source nutrient pollution in soils of
low permeability which was developed to inform government on
eutrophication mitigation strategies. As a direct development of this
research, in 2004 Prof Jordan led the EU INTERREG IIIa funded Blackwater
TRACE (Trans-boundary River-basin Action for Community and Environment)
project which sought to test the efficacy of emerging and proposed WFD
mitigation measures. The project collected high resolution chemical water
quality data sets in three small (3-5 km2) grassland
agricultural sub-catchments and developed a bankside analyser
instrumentation suite from equipment which had formerly been used in water
treatment plants. This novel approach revolutionised bankside water
sampling (Jordan et al., 2007) as, for the first time, long term high
resolution (sub-hourly) water quality data sets could be collected,
synchronous with river discharge. These data were subsequently used to
test theories of river chemistry monitoring from less frequent data and to
evaluate the use of new technology passive samplers (Jordan et al., 2013).
The technique of high resolution nutrient monitoring in rivers has since
been emulated in a number of high profile catchment studies (e.g. the
Irish Agricultural Catchments Programme, the UK Demonstration Tests
Catchments, and the North Wyke Farm Platform).
Blackwater TRACE included specific research into reducing phosphorus from
excessively fertilised soils and replacing defective septic tank systems;
the high resolution monitoring demonstrated pressures from these sources
at both high and low river discharges. The results clearly showed that
soil phosphorus declines would be slow to achieve in the impermeable soils
near the Blackwater River and would not necessarily be mirrored by
synchronous changes in phosphorus concentrations during diffuse high flows
in rivers. Through additional research, the results also demonstrated that
replacing defective septic tank systems would only be successful if a
planning strategy to avoid clusters (i.e. increased densities) in
headwater systems was developed (Macintosh et al., 2011) - otherwise
septic tanks would continue to be an environmental risk to the on-going
eutrophication of headwaters during low summer flows in Ireland and
elsewhere (Arnscheidt et al., 2007).
These themes were continued and augmented by Prof Jordan during a three
year secondment period as Principal Scientist to Teagasc, the Irish
Agriculture and Food Development Authority (01/01/09 to 31/12/11). In one
study during this period, the decline of excessive soil phosphorus was
modelled to predict the time taken to reduce to an agronomic optimum under
fertiliser deficit scenarios - and so become environmentally benign to
diffuse pollution (Schulte et al., 2010). Here, lag-time scenarios of
7-20+ years were predicted, independent of soil type, and this validated
the work in the Blackwater River catchment. In a partner study, a
groundwater model of nitrate- nitrogen flux was developed to show how
there was also a lag-time associated with high nitrate concentrations
leaving a polluted aquifer and that this was dependent on metrics of soil
permeability and on the geology controlling both vertical and lateral
nitrate fluxes (Fenton et al., 2011).
During the secondment period the number of high resolution nutrient
monitoring stations in Ireland was increased from three to nine in order
to investigate diffuse and point source pollution processes across a
land-use gradient. Soil controls on diffuse pollution were validated in
multiple soil types (Jordan et al., 2012) and the impacts of septic tank
systems were reproduced. The techniques have also been used for the first
time to investigate nutrient fluxes from karst springs and this on-going
research has developed theories of critical source areas of diffuse P
pollution in karst landscapes.
References to the research
*1. Jordan, P., Arnscheidt, Joerg, McGrogan, H. and McCormick, S.
(2007) Characterising phosphorus transfers in rural catchments using a
continuous bank-side analyser. HYDROLOGY AND EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCES, 11
(1). pp. 372-381.
*2. Schulte, R. P. O., Melland, A. R., Fenton, O., Herlihy, M.,
Richards, K. and Jordan, P. (2010) Modelling soil phosphorus
decline: Expectations of Water Framework Directive policies.
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & POLICY, 13 (6). pp. 472-484.
*3. Fenton, O, Schulte, RPO, Jordan, P., Lalor, STJ and
Richards, KG (2011) Time lag: a methodology for the estimation of vertical
and horizontal travel and flushing timescales to nitrate threshold
concentrations in Irish aquifers. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & POLICY, 14.
pp. 419- 431.
4. Arnscheidt, J., Jordan, P., Li, S., McCormick, S.,
McFaul, R., McGrogan, H. J., Neal, M. and Sims, J. T. (2007) Defining
the sources of low-flow phosphorus transfers in complex catchments.
SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT, 382 (1). pp. 1-13.
5. Jordan, P., Cassidy, R., Macintosh, K.A. and Arnscheidt, J.
(2013) Field and Laboratory Tests of Flow-Proportional Passive Samplers
for Determining Average Phosphorus and Nitrogen Concentration in Rivers.
ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, 47 (5). pp. 2331-2338.
6. Jordan, P., Melland, A.R., Mellander, P.-E., Shortle, G. and
Wall, D. (2012) The seasonality of phosphorus transfers from land to
water: Implications for trophic impacts and policy evaluation. SCIENCE OF
THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT, 434. pp. 101-109.
7. Jordan, P., Rippey, B. and Anderson, N.J. (2001) Modelling
diffuse phosphorus loads from land to freshwater using the sedimentary
record. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, 35 (5). pp. 815-819.
8. Macintosh, K.A, Jordan, P., Cassidy, R., Arnscheidt, J.
and Ward, C. (2011) Low flow water quality in rivers; septic tank systems
and high-resolution phosphorus signals. SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT,
412 . pp. 58-65.
"Catchment Hydrology and Sustainable Management" (2000-2005), Natural
Environment Research Council. (£215,488)
"Eutrophication from Agriculture - Soil and Phosphorus (Catchment
Studies)" (2000-2004), Environmental Protection Agency ERTDI. (£131,458)
"Blackwater Trans-boundary River-basin Action for Community and
Environment (TRACE)" (2004- 2008), INTERREG IIIA. (£1,457,999)
"Testing a New Technology for Monitoring Nutrients in Rivers"
(2008-2010), Environmental Protection Agency STRIVE. (£176,263)
"An Effective Framework For assessing aquatic ECosysTem
responses to implementation of the Phosphorous Regulations (EFFECT)"
(2008-2011), Environmental Protection Agency STRIVE. (£20,091)
Details of the impact
Two policy impacts related to the Republic of Ireland's obligations under
the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Waste Directive (WD) resulted
from this research; achieving at least good ecological status in water
bodies by 2015 and providing a strategy for mitigating septic tank system
In 2009 the Irish Government approached Teagasc to provide a scientific
assessment of the bio- physical lag-times associated with soil phosphorus
decline and nitrate enrichment of groundwaters in agricultural catchments.
Due to his experience with nutrient transfer science, Prof Jordan was
asked by Teagasc (during his secondment period) to investigate these
processes and assess the potential of the River Basin Management Plans in
Ireland to meet the goals of the WFD and achieve at least good ecological
water status by 2015.
The results showed that, while the measures to mitigate excessive
phosphorus in soils and nitrate enrichment of groundwaters were sound,
there were bio-physical constraints that would ultimately hinder water
quality measures to be met in the time specified. The original measures
could achieve the targets set by the WFD but only if sufficient time were
allowed to accrue between implementation and compliance.
Specifically, the soil phosphorus decline model developed by the team at
Teagasc, based on realistic farm management scenarios, estimated that
improvements in soil phosphorus status to meet the requirements of the WFD
may take up to 20 years (Schulte et al., 2010); longer than anticipated
and beyond the original target deadline of 2015 for achieving at least
good water quality status. In addition, the groundwater quality models and
simulations developed by Fenton et al. (2011) suggested that acceptable
nitrate concentrations would only be achieved between 2019 and 2033, if
mitigation were implemented by 2012.
These findings provided further evidence for a more phased time frame for
compliance with the WFD water quality targets and as a direct result, and
following consultation with the EU, all River Basin Management Plan
targets were amended to account for revised lag-times - up to 2027 for
achieving 100% good status1,2. The work has greatly benefitted
the Irish Department of Environment, Community and Local Government which
has overall administrative responsibility for WFD compliance via
individual River Basin Districts3. Without coherent mitigation
measures in place and a scientific assessment of the likelihood of these
measures to correct water quality impairment by the 2015 target date,
Ireland would have been at risk of investigation and charge by the
Further, as a consequence of a European Court order under the WD on a
water quality infringement resulting from the poor regulation of septic
tank systems, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has
introduced a process of registration, inspection and mitigation works in
rural areas. Previously, pathogenic contamination of groundwater from
faecal matter in 25.4% of water samples was referred to the European Court
of Justice resulting in a lump sum fine of €1,8m and a daily penalty
payment of €19k until the infringement ended. Research led by Prof Jordan
identified the environmental risk to surface waters from low level
persistent effluent discharges especially in areas with high septic system
density and low soil permeability (Arnscheidt et al., 2007; Macintosh et
al., 2011). This research was recognised by EPA hydrometric and ecology
sections and a revised inspection plan now includes a methodology to
include environmental (as well as health) risk to both ground and surface
waters4,5. Daily EU fines were lifted on the 12th
February 2012, the same day publication of these risk assessments
contained in the National inspection plan were adopted6.
Sources to corroborate the impact
1 Final River Basin Management Plan. Background
Documentation. Alternative Objectives: Approach to extended deadlines.
(Pages 9, 11, 28, and 40.)
2 Shannon Integrated River Basin Management Plan
(2009-2015) Incorporating Amendments for the Ministry of The Environment,
Heritage and Local Government. (Pages 36, 37, and 82.)
3 Statement from Water Inspector, Department of Environment,
Community and Local Government.
5 Statement from Manager, Hydrometric and Groundwater
Programme, Environmental Protection Agency.
6 Statement from Scientific Officer, Groundwater Section,
Environmental Protection Agency.