Irish Water has been strongly criticised for failing to adequately address discharges of untreated sewage at many locations around the country and making insufficient progress on addressing massive leakage in water supply systems.
The findings are in the latest report of the Water Advisory Body (WAB) which advises the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on measures needed to improve transparency and accountability in the utility and progress on investment.
The pace at which Irish Water is fixing “the legacy of deficiencies in Ireland’s waste water treatment infrastructure is too slow and there are repeated delays in providing treatment for many areas”, concludes its report for the second quarter of 2020 published on Tuesday.
A total of 19 large towns and cities do not meet EU standards set to protect the environment “while 33 towns and villages will continue discharging raw sewage after 2021 because they will still not have a waste water treatment plant,” it finds.
WAB chairman Paul McGowan, noted: “Work around leakage needs to be linked to effective and clear communication around the continuous need for water conservation and this (is )regardless of when the sun shines. The concurrent impact of Covid-19 and the recent drought have given a stark reminder of Ireland’s water capacity challenges.”
In evaluating 11 performance indicators, key findings include:
Leakage: Irish Water acknowledges leakage from its "water supply networks is at unacceptable levels and well above international norms";
Fixing leaks: The "First Fix Scheme" shows "a continued and disappointing drop-off in the number of leak repairs completed since mid-2016";
Boil Water Notices: The WAB "notes with concern the trends for long term boil water notices highlighted by the EPA" – the notices are required where contamination, such as the presence of bacteria or a pathogen, poses a health risk;
Urban waste water treatment : Overall compliance is very low though there is an increase in the percentage of urban areas meeting licence standards.
Ringsend waste water treatment plant
More than half of the 75 per cent non-compliance, however, can be attributed to Ringsend waste water treatment plant, which treats some 40 per cent of Ireland’s public waste water but is operating at over capacity and not in compliance with national and EU environmental regulations.
It was built to cater for 1.6 million people while more than €400 million is being spend on upgrading it, increasing its capacity to 2.1 million. While quality of treated waste water will improve as upgrade works proceed, it is “not expected to start meeting the required standards until the end of 2022 at the earliest”.
The WAB welcomes progress on mains replacement with 407km of watermains in 2018 and 333km in 2019 being replaced or rehabilitated – “a substantial increase compared to 2017”. Meanwhile compliance with microbiological indicators “remains very high”.
Multiple failures last year at the Leixlip water treatment plant – which provides much of the Dublin region and parts of Kildare and Meath with drinking water – highlighted the serious lack of resilience in Irish water supplies, it warns.
The WAB highlights the urgent need to complete installation of ultraviolet disinfection at the “old” Leixlip Water Treatment Plant “to ensure greater security of supply to the Greater Dublin Area”.
“The growing uncertainty in Irish Water’s planning and delivery of critical improvements to water treatment plants is undermining confidence in the security of supply of safe drinking water.”
The WAB chairman underlined the need for the utility to make better progress on its strategic investments. "Waste water compliance, leakage and funding have emerged as being critically important in terms of Irish Water demonstrating clear progress to address known deficiencies in the water and waste water systems, but also to demonstrate to the EU, the Oireachtas and the public that concrete progress is being made to address these deficiencies," Mr McGowan added.
Leakage is a key metric that Irish Water must address consistently and progressively, the report underlines. “This is important to demonstrate to the public that concrete actions are being taken to address the serious capacity issues in the provision of water. By addressing leakage it is the body’s view that the public will have more confidence in the need for the investment required to address critical water supply capacity issues, particularly in the eastern/Dublin region.”
Irish Water must “demonstrate it is delivering outputs and outcomes that benefit customers, the environment and society”, but the WAB accepts it requires significant and sustained financing to deliver its capital investment programme, and acknowledges Covid-19 and other uncertainties create financial impacts.
"Unlike other utilities such as ESB Networks or Gas Networks Ireland, Irish Water largely depends on Exchequer financing for the funding of its operations and capital investment programme. The certainty and year-to-year flexibility of that funding will have a significant impact on the delivery of these desired outcomes."
Irish Water said that while significant achievements have been made in upgrading water and wastewater infrastructure, it acknowledged “the size and scale of the legacy issues, planning and land acquisition delays; the need to reprioritise investment to respond to emerging needs; and funding constraints has resulted in slower progress than initially forecast”.
“Irish Water is committed to providing a safe and reliable water supply and wastewater treatment service, protecting the environment and supporting the growth of homes and businesses,” its spokeswoman added.
Its investment plan, she said, “prioritises protection of public health and key outcomes such as leakage; removing water supplies from the EPA’s Remedial Action List; areas where there is raw sewage entering the rivers, lakes and the sea (untreated agglomerations); and areas identified by the European Court of Justice under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive”.
Irish Water had invested €250 million to date to stop the discharge of almost half of all untreated sewage in Ireland with 15 new wastewater plants delivered to date. It plans to begin construction of 12 new plants next year and to address the remaining sites throughout 2022 and 2023, subject to planning and funding. “We are committed to working with local communities to deliver these critical project in areas that have never previously been served by wastewater networks or plants.”
To support future investment planning, Scottish Water International were commissioned by the utility to review its internal processes. Implementation of their recommendations would play a role in future delivery of capital works.
Irish Water managing director Niall Gleeson said: “Despite a range of challenges to the delivery of wastewater infrastructure projects, including the poor condition of the legacy infrastructure and planning and land acquisition delays, Irish Water is making significant progress.”
Over the past six years, Irish Water had targeted resources to areas with the greatest population or volume of discharge. “As a result, we have succeeded in reducing the amount of raw sewage discharged by 50 per cent to date.”
“The completion of the Cork Lower Harbour Drainage Project in 2021 is on track and the construction of the Arklow Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is due to begin in 2021 subject to funding, will address the majority of the remaining untreated discharge,” Mr Gleeson said.
Leakage reduction continues to be a key area of focus with almost €1 billion will be invested over a 10-year period to reduce leakage nationally, he confirmed.
“The report is clear, however, that much more remains to be done. The building, repair and upgrading of Irish Water’s water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plants, water and sewer network will require a multi-billion euro investment programme over many years. Irish Water has a plan and is committed to providing a safe and reliable water supply, protecting the environment and supporting the growth of homes and businesses,” he said.