On Monday, the department published its draft River Basin Management Plan, a strategy overseeing the improvement of rivers, estuaries and other areas, which will now go to public consultation.
“We do have a concern in Government, to be straight, about water quality in this country,” Mr O’Brien said, launching the document at the Turvey Nature Reserve in north Co Dublin.
“More progress actually needs to be made. Just short of half [of our water courses] are reporting that the water quality is poor or worse than that.”
The plan is a required element of the European Union Water Framework Directive and seeks to ensure quality to help protect drinking water sources and their surrounds.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was critical of the last plan, while public confidence in efforts to safeguard supply may be shaken by the recent treatment plant failures in Dublin and Gorey, Co Wexford.
At the launch, Green Party Minister of State Malcolm Noonan said that of 1,600 water bodies deemed at risk, about 47 per cent were so from a single issue or threat with the remaining from more.
“We do need to address it in a collective way,” Mr Noonan said of the public consultation process that will now run for six months. “We do need our farming community to take part. We also need our local authorities to step up, our Irish Water, all of the agencies and communities.”
The plan, which will run until 2027, sets out environmental improvements to be delivered during a river basin planning cycle, water quality objectives and a programme of measures.
In total, there are 4,842 water bodies. Only about half of rivers, lakes, coastal and transitional waters are identified as having “good or better” status.
The last report running from 2018 to 2021 outlined several ambitions, including a reduction in water pipe leakage rates from 46 per cent to 38 per cent by 2021. Irish Water said it is currently at 42 per cent and on target to reach 38 per cent this year – that alone would result in a daily saving of 166 million litres.
However, the updated plan also notes new challenges expected to emerge as a consequence of global warming.
“While Ireland has abundant water resources, the impacts of climate change are already being felt and are expected to continue and intensify in the years and decades to come,” it says.
With planning for droughts and water scarcity becoming “increasingly crucial”, Irish Water is developing a National Water Resources Plan to secure a reliable and sustainable public water supply over a 25-year timeframe.
Since 2018, with agriculture a key sector influencing water quality, a team of advisors has visited about 2,100 farms, while there have been 16,000 separate “engagements” with dairy farmers.