This is the second time within a year that households and businesses in the Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare areas will lose their water supply between 8 pm and 7 am. The problem, as on the previous occasion, is not a shortage of water but the capacity of treatment plants to produce enough of it to a high standard. An algae growth at Roundwood reservoir was the culprit last March. This time, difficulties at Ballymore Eustace in Kildare involve water discolouration and turbidity. Plant inadequacies, along with minimum reserves of treated water, are direct consequences of poor planning and past investment failures. The system, creaking for years, now threatens a damaging meltdown.
Political responses have been predictable. Rather than address the issue of inadequate water treatment plants - the source of the trouble - opposition politicians criticised the planned introduction of water meter charges in 2015. On the Government side, the formal establishment of Irish Water, which will be the largest public utility since the ESB was set up, was offered as a panacea. It also provided an opportunity to promote a scheme to raid the Shannon for a new water supply for Dublin. Irish Water, it was suggested, should fast-track this project.
Even if the Shannon scheme goes ahead, a water pipeline is unlikely to reach Dublin before 2020. That kind of delay could spell ruin for the hospitality sector and misery for millions of householders because of frequent interruptions in supply. An immediate upgrade of treatment plants is required, not just in Dublin but in rural Ireland where “boil water” notices are regularly issued. Water metering could actually help the situation because of a predicted fall-off in demand.
Irish Water will be allowed to raise money for investment. It faces organisational problems, however, because of a requirement to absorb the existing water and waste treatment staff of 34 local authorities. The top-heavy problems of the HSE and inbuilt inefficiencies come to mind.