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Map of sample sites in Dublin

Results of DCU Water Institute’s WaterBlitz show high levels of litter in Ireland’s waterways

Dublin City University’s Water Institute and Earthwatch have today published the preliminary results of its first WaterBlitz. The WaterBlitz is a survey of water bodies in Ireland that was conducted by citizen scientists over four days in September, 20th - 23rd. Volunteers tested water in rivers, lakes, streams and canals around the country to take a snapshot of the health and state of Ireland’s waterways.

Key figures and findings

  • Over one third of locations surveyed were littered

  • 18% of rivers tested had high levels of nutrient nitrates

  • High levels of surface algae observed 

  • Dublin had the lowest levels of pollutants of the four European areas surveyed (Paris, London, Luxembourg)

  • 373 water samples taken over 4 days

  • 30 catchment areas tested

  • Among the most sampled water bodies were the Dodder river with 79 sample points, the Liffey with 67 points, and the Tolka with 24.

What was measured

Citizen scientists taking part in the WaterBlitz tested for the nutrients nitrates and phosphates.   These nutrients are the most common pollutants in European waters. Our scientists were also asked to note the presence of indicators such as litter, algae and scum on the water surface.

Nitrates are often found in water in the presence of fertilisers. When washed into our watercourses and waterbodies, they can cause a process of eutrophication, which leads previously healthy lakes or rivers to become choked with algae, severely depleting water-dissolved oxygen, resulting in the elimination of other forms of aquatic life.

Phosphates are commonly found in water following the use of fertilisers and detergents. They can also come from domestic sewage and are a major source of water pollution. Like nitrates, phosphates encourage the growth of algae.

Over a third of the areas sampled were noted as having litter on the water surface. Areas found to be littered included places that one might think would be pristine, such as Glendalough’s Upper Lake in Wicklow.  Litter, particularly plastics, in our streams and rivers ultimately enters the ocean, enter the water cycle and eventually the food chain.

Why measurements were taken

Many of our rivers, ponds, lakes and other water bodies across Europe are suffering from the effects of pollution and other human impacts. Many of these are not regularly monitored as there simply aren’t enough scientists to carry out the level of monitoring needed.

By measuring these nutrient nitrates and phosphates alongside some other basic indicators of ecosystem health, a detailed picture of where our water is being affected by pollution can start to be built.  It can also pinpoint where there are clean water bodies that we need to protect.

Dr. Susan Hegarty, Project Lead said: 

“We were delighted that there was such a huge response to our first WaterBlitz and we want to thank all of our citizen scientists for getting involved.  We’ve seen in the last week how fragile our water ecosystem is, with over 600,000 people in Dublin, Meath and Kildare having to boil their water due to a plant malfunction, while others around Knock airport have a boil water notice due to the bacteria cryptosporidium being found in the public water supply - indicating the supply is contaminated with animal or human waste. 

We’ve seen from the preliminary results of the WaterBlitz, in addition to pollutants such is nutrient nitrates and phosphates, litter is a big problem in our water bodies, with over one third of locations surveyed littered.  Plastic in particular is incredibly problematic, as it breaks down into microplastics that enter the food chain.

We hope that we will be able to build year on year on the work carried out in the WaterBlitz to establish a more complete picture of the health of Ireland’s water bodies and how they are faring over time.”

Further study and data

A second, more in-depth and comprehensive report on the data obtained through the WaterBlitz will be released in mid-December.

The WaterBlitz will take place again in 2020.

About DCU Water Institute

The DCU Water Institute is a cross-faculty initiative of research and education on water. It aims to work with all stakeholders, across academia, industry, agency and society in its research and development work. Through research and capacity building, the Water Institute develops solutions to national and global problems in water. It specialises in technology developments across science, engineering and computer science domains with strong communications focus and policy and business drivers. These areas are reflected in its academic members, who come from all faculties of DCU.


About Earthwatch and the WaterBlitz

Earthwatch’s mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.

The expansion of Earthwatch’s WaterBlitz water monitoring survey from the UK into Europe has been made possible thanks to the charity’s new partnership with Royal Bank of Canada, which aims to connect local communities and engage them in conserving and restoring urban water bodies across the continent. Working with prominent scientists from Dublin City University and other European research institutions, Earthwatch will coordinate the public WaterBlitz in Ireland, France, the UK and Luxembourg at the same time, ensuring the data collected is directly comparable and helping to build a more detailed picture of water quality across Europe.