Water quality research (WQR) programme

Area of Expertise:

Sustainable intensification of agriculture in Northern Ireland (NI), which is implicit in the Going-for-Growth strategic plan, will have to be accomplished within the context of the targets established by EU environmental directives, such as the Drinking Water Directive, Nitrates Directive and Water Framework Directive.

WQR programme focus

The extent to which agricultural intensification can be achieved sustainably is as yet unclear, with potential climate change impacts introducing additional uncertainty in terms of economic production and environmental impact. Clearly, a strong evidence base is needed to determine where and how sustainable intensification might be implemented.

To provide the necessary evidence base, the Water Quality Research (WQR) Programme has focused on (1) understanding the fundamental relationship between agricultural land use practices and the quality of aquatic ecosystems, and (2) the development of practical solutions for the livestock industry and other stakeholders to mitigate adverse impacts on water quality. Our programme operates on multiple scales ranging from plot experiments through small-medium scale agricultural catchment studies to monitoring of large lakes. 

Key research

Examples of key research carried out at these different scales


  • Four decades of monitoring the biology and water chemistry of Lough Neagh and associated rivers - providing an in-depth understanding of the biological and nutrient processes governing the response of lakes to land use practices and climate change. 
  • Weekly monitoring of sub-catchments, covering a range of agricultural intensities, in the Colebrooke and Upper Bann rivers since the 1990’s - providing a valuable platform on which to evaluate the efficacy of mitigation measures
  • Plot scale studies demonstrating the potential contribution of legacy soil P export to water bodies, which could have significant consequences for livestock agriculture in NI.

The WQR Programme has a strong reputation nationally and internationally for scientific excellence and for providing the livestock industry with innovative solutions for mitigating the impacts of agriculture on water quality. 

Examples of the quality and impact of our research at national scale


  • In 2013/14 the programme outputs were integral to the recent successful EU review of the NI Nitrates Action Programme (NAP). For example, the efficacy of Regulation 18 in the NAP, relating to the storage of poultry litter in field heaps, was supported directly by research conducted in the WQR programme and reported to the European Commission.
  • The Lake Management tools, based on predictive models developed during the DOLMANT INTERREG project, will be used by the Irish and Northern Irish Environmental Protection Agencies to inform the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive.
  • Researchers in the WQR programme are leading an EPA project to identify national research priorities for mitigating the impacts of agriculture on water quality in Ireland. 

Insert images (Poultry litter heap research); (Improving lake management); (Mitigating agricultural impacts)

International impact

At an international level the WQR programme is making a significant contribution to research as demonstrated by our strong publication record and active research links with leading international research organisations such as Wageningen University (Netherlands), AgReseach (New Zealand), Stanford University, Florida International University (USA), and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Our researchers also serve on editorial boards of leading International journals such as The Journal of Environmental of Environmental Quality and make significant contributions to international networks such as; The International Phosphorus Research Coordination Committee run by Arizona State University; Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network and the International Association of Hydrogeologists.

Recent key international scientific outputs

Recent key international scientific outputs arising from the WQR Programme

Doody D.G., Withers P. J., A. And Dils R. M., (2014) Prioritizing Waterbodies to Balance Agricultural Production and Environmental Outcomes. Environmental Science and Technology 48: 7697- 7699 (Impact Factor 5.5)

Kominoski, J. S., Shah, J. J. F., Canhoto, C., Fischer, D. G., Giling, D. P., Gonzalez, E., Griffiths, N. A., Larranaga, A., Leroy, C. J., Mineau, M. M., McElarney, Y. R., Shirley, S. M., Swan, C. M. & Tiegs, S. D. (2013). Forecasting functional implications of global changes in riparian plant communities. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11: 423-432. (Impact factor 8.4)

Thompson, J., Cassidy, R., Doody, D. G., Flynn, R. (2013). Predicting critical source areas of sediment in headwater catchments. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 179:41-52 (Impact Factor 3.9).


To meet the challenges of sustainable livestock production, the WQR Programme will utilise our specialist skills and equipment to enable us to successfully deliver an integrated programme of research which links contaminant sources, mobilisation, hydrological pathways and aquatic ecosystem impacts across a range of geographical scales.