Investment in water has not increased capacity
Decades of under investment leaves system unable to cope
Members of the Dublin 15 branch of the Anti Austerity Alliance protest beside Irish Water workers installing water meters in the Bramblefields estate in Littlepace.
The Dublin water supply is capable of some impressive feats of gymnastics. In 1997 the late Jim Fenwick, then Dublin city engineer, told this newspaper water supplies in the city were balanced “on a knife edge” with consumers urged to conserve water to avoid cuts.
The same phrase was used this week by the current city engineer, Michael Phillips, following the arrival of the mystery water at the Poulaphouca reservoir. Restrictions had to be put in place because production was on a “knife edge” with 1 per cent spare capacity in the system.
For more 16 years later this delicate balancing act has been maintained. As this week has shown, with one slip the knife falls, leaving up to 1.5 million households across not only Dublin but neighbouring counties at risk of water cuts.
In that period, when more money sloshed around than the country had ever seen previously, was no investment made in water services?
The council took action following Mr Fenwick’s warning. It cut the water off every night for nine months.
However, it then embarked on a major project to repair leaks in the city’s largely Victorian mains network. This didn’t improve matters initially. The pipes were so fragile that just touching them made them fall apart – only the rust had held them together. It became apparent that replacement and not repair was required.
After several years of planning, the Dublin Region Watermain Rehabilitation Project began in 2006. It is not due for completion until 2020. To date, 140km of public water mains have been replaced but there are about 1,400km left to do. This project addresses the delivery of water but on the supply side significant problems remain.
The Poulaphouca reservoir stores enough water to last for between 120 and 180 days, but the Ballymore Eustace treatment plant, the region’s main water-processing works, could not treat enough water to meet demand. About €100 million has just been spent to bring its water production capacity from 252 million litres a day to 310 million.
“We have invested money over the years but the problem is we were always playing catch-up with the growth in population but more particularly the growth in industry over the boom years,” said Mr Phillips. Any investment in recent years is “a drop in the ocean” compared with decades of underinvestment since the abolition of rates in 1978, he added.
The State has committed to increasing investment under Irish Water and €500 million has been earmarked for the project to pump 350 million litres of water a day from the river Shannon to serve the capital’s drinking water needs for the next 70 years.
However, there are those in the industry who argue the State is maintaining too narrow a focus on water production at the expense of water recycling. All the water that leaves our water treatment plants is fit for human consumption but only about 1 per cent of it is used for that purpose. The remaining water is used for showering, flushing, watering plants, etc.
Kingspan, which sells rainwater harvesting systems, says domestic water usage could be reduced by 50- 70 per cent if homes had the capacity to capture rainwater.
While the company clearly has a vested interest, these systems are becoming standard in new schools and other public buildings. The Dublin City Development Plan says these are best practice for new housing developments. They were not, however, included in the most recent national building standards.