Some of the rain that falls on Ireland filters through the soil, subsoil and rocks and becomes groundwater.  Much of that water moves slowly underground and remains there for long periods before emerging as base flow in rivers or as springs. Some is extracted for drinking, particularly for single houses in the country, and often receives little or no treatment prior to use.

Groundwater is protected against pollution from the surface if there is sufficient depth of overlying soil and subsoil but, if that depth of cover is small, then groundwater is vulnerable from septic tank effluent and from slurry spreading.  Much of the underlying rock in Ireland is limestone that is easily dissolved by water and this has created cracks and fissures in the rock that allows pollutants from the surface to move quickly down to the underlying water body.  Hence much of Ireland’s groundwater resources are vulnerable to pollution.

The pollutants of most concern to groundwater in Ireland are Nitrates from fertiliser use on land and microbial contamination from septic tanks and slurry spreading.  Septic tank systems are used extensively for sewage treatment in the rural areas of the country and, while the tank itself separates out gross solid material, the real treatment occurs in the soil and subsoil of the percolation area downstream of the tank.  Almost all animal manures are recovered as fertiliser on farm land and this material has the potential to be highly polluting with a very high microbial count.

Microbial Contamination

Faecal Coliforms in groundwater
Courtesy EPA

This graph shows the faecal coliform count in groundwater samples taken in five different survey periods from 1995 – 2009.  The presence of faecal coliforms indicates contamination by faecal matter and suggests the possible presence of more dangerous pathogens.

The faecal coliform limit for drinking water is zero.  For the most recent survey period 2007-2009, faecal contamination was found in 74.4% of the locations surveyed on one or more occasion.  This very high percentage confirms the vulnerability of our groundwater resources and underlines the importance of careful siting of septic tanks and careful management and spreading of animal manures.


Chemical Contamination

Nitrates concentrations in groundwater
Courtesy EPA

The graph shows the nitrate concentrations in groundwater for five different survey periods from 1995 – 2009.  The limit set by regulation for nitrate in drinking water is 50 milligrams per litre but the EU Directive also set a guide value of 25 milligrams per litre as an indicator of contamination.

The graph shows that a small number of samples exceeded the 50 limit but a large number breached the guide value.  Nitrate contamination is more common in the South and Southeast of the country where farming is more intensive.

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