Some 6,300km of water mains at risk of rupture

Even if main water pipes are not rupturing they are certainly leaking

Irish Water has confirmed that thousands of households and businesses in Louth and Meath will be without water until Thursday as it struggles to mend a mains pipe that burst last Friday.

 

Irish Water has grand plans to deal with the State’s 63,000km of water mains, 32,000km of sewer pipes, 856 water-treatment works and 1,102 waste-water treatment plants.

Details are documented in an overview of the latest statistics from Irish Water on the state of the infrastructure.

Getting the funding, €5.5 billion up to 2021, and the politics of that has already proven a nation-convulsing exercise that has yet to be resolved.

Also problematic is the current lack of authority of both local councils and Irish Water. This has been demonstrated in the perceived inaction and delays over the crisis in Louth and Meath where a ruptured water main has left 70,000 householders waterless for five days and counting.

But equally problematic is the condition of the State’s water infrastructure despite some improvement in the past couple of years.

In a slew of statistics from Irish Water seen by The Irish Times there are plenty of worrying figures.

One of the most concerning is that about 10 per cent of those 63,000km of water mains across the State are asbestos mains like the ruptured Co Louth pipe.

The Co Louth main is 43 years old, was installed in 1974 and has burst three times in the last 30 years, a problem every decade.

Danger of collapse

One of the most at-risk section is a 4km tunnel section of the Vartry Water Supply scheme, which is the third largest water-treatment plant in the country, and, according to Irish Water, “is in imminent danger of collapse”, the documents say.

Plans for its overhaul were the subject of an appeal, but work is expected to commence early next year and take two years to complete.

If 10 per cent of pipes have to be replaced that is 6,300km of mains at risk of rupture at any time.

Even with effective implementation of the water authority’s upgrading plan, only about 280km will be replaced annually based on current activity.

Irish Water’s replacement of 840km of water main in the past three years compares very well to just 860km in the previous decade. About 1,000km has been identified to be replaced up to 2021. And the overall plan is to replace 1 per cent of piping every year but “this will depend on funding”.

Certainly without the funding the risk of further ruptures cannot be ruled out, but even with funding and a full steam ahead scheme of pipe replacement, other asbestos pipe ruptures are clearly on the cards. The pipes are twice the age of the average European network. But even if those pipes are not rupturing, they are certainly leaking.

Metering

One of the most controversial elements of the politics of water, water funding and water charges has been about metering to locate that leaking.

Critics question and oppose as wasteful the installation of meters, and argue that the costs of metering would have been better spent on replacing water mains.

Yet the water authority has consistently insisted that “without water meters we couldn’t measure how much water people use so we couldn’t accurately work out how much was lost through leaks”.

Water charge opponents had estimated leakages at up to 60 per cent of pipes. Irish Water says “up to half the water we produce is lost through leaks”. The exact figure, the company says, is 49 cent.

Ten years ago €130 million was spent on large water meters across the public network supply but no money was spent maintaining these meters and 50 per cent of them were broken when the water authority took over.

“We are fixing these meters and most are back in operation,” the company says. And it stresses: “Using these bulk meters and the domestic meters we can accurately measure, pinpoint and repair leakage for the first time on our public networks and on people’s private supply.”

Average use

Originally it was thought that average use was 150 litres to 190 litres per person every day, but based on the metering system now “domestic water meters tell us that customer use an average of 125 litres of water per person per day”.

The “First Fix” programme where the authority would fix a householder’s first leak free of charge has involved repairing 7,500 leaks based at a cost of €20 million.

This is saving 89 million litres of water every day, which the company says is three times the quantity of water supplied to Drogheda and affected by the current supply disruption.

According to the company’s statistics, the rate of leakage in Ireland is almost double that of the UK for comparative water companies in the UK serving almost similar populations.

Ireland has, however, twice the length of pipe based on these figures. It shows the State with 58,000km (although the overall figures is 63,000km) while comparative populations in England and Wales have 28,161km of pipe, 47,300km in Scotland, and 26,700km in Northern Ireland.

Water notices

There have been dramatic improvements over the past 2½ years in drinking water quality and long-term boil water notice problems.

At the start of 2015, a total of 23,297 households and businesses were on such notices, but the number has dropped significantly to 3,867 customers. They are located in five counties – Ballinlough/Loughglynn, Co Roscommon (3,427); Nire, Waterford (5); Dundrum region and Scrothea, Clonmel, Co Tipperary (173); Ardcarraig Clougherinkoe, Co Galway (80); and Glynn, Co Wexford (182).

No timeline has been given for these areas to see an improvement but there are other difficulties. Some 90 public water supplies are on the remedial action list of the Environment Protection Agency. This has dropped from 108 supplies but it means that the agency is not happy that these supplies “can produce clean safe drinking water for all customers every day” and they have to have a specific investment plan.

These 90 water supplies from 115 water treatment plants affect almost 750,000 consumers, and concern inadequate disinfection of E.coli, barriers against crytosporidium and inadequate treatment for the by-product of the chlorination used to disinfect water from harmful bacteria.

The improvements delivered through a €1.9 billion investment in water services since 2014 include 32 water-water plants upgraded and 27 new plants built.

But half of the 856 water treatment plants require investment. A total of 156 waste-water plants are “overloaded”, while 30 are at capacity, including Limerick city which needs immediate upgrade to meet new industry needs.

Headroom

The greater Dublin area is dependent on a Ringsend plant which “requires both process upgrading and capacity expansion”.

The industry standard for “headroom” capacity – the level of water available beyond that being used – is 15 per cent, but in Dublin it is just 2 per cent.

And almost half of plants are below 15 per cent.

The figures from Irish Water show that cost of operations per customer in Ireland on a kilometre basis is also double the UK average.

This means that for every one of the 3.3 million of population served in Ireland it costs Irish Water €212.36 per kilometre to operate compared to €94.20 in England and Wales, €72 in Scotland and €113.80 in Northern Ireland.

Some work done, an awful lot more to do, and no firm plan on funding.

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