Legislation diverting Shannon water to Dublin flawed, Government told

Plans breach EU rules in six major areas independent legal advisers warn

Shannon river, minutes walk from Athlone town centre. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Shannon river, minutes walk from Athlone town centre. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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Legislation to clear the way for the extraction of 350 million litres of water a day from the river Shannon to feed Dublin’s needs is seriously flawed, according to a review by the Oireachtas’s independent legal advisers.

In particular, the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers has questioned plans in the draft legislation to issue licences as of right to all existing bodies which extract water; to issue such licences for life, and to set extraction levels far higher than happens in other European Union states.

The legal advisers flagged a number of breaches of the EU Water Framework Directive in the draft general scheme of the Environment Abstractions Bill which is being introduced by the Department of Housing.

The legislation, which was referred by the all-party Housing Committee to the legal advisers, is also being brought forward to avoid imminent EU sanctions for the State, to give effect to elements of the Water Framework Directive in Irish law.

The EU directive requires the State to have strong control over water abstraction, and to prevent industry, quarries or water schemes from worsening water shortages during drought periods, or reducing water quality.

Identifying at least six major areas of non-compliance with EU directives in the draft legislation, the legal advisers said the legislation proposes that a licence for an existing abstraction cannot be refused, which effectively exempts all existing bodies from any control.

It also proposes to allow licences to be issued in perpetuity. The advisers responded by saying there was “no clear mechanism to revoke (a licence)”.

“The climate is changing very rapidly. If it’s not damaging now it could be really damaging in 20 to 30 years’ time but there’s no provision to address that,” says Elaine McGoff, natural environment officer of An Taisce, who made a separate submission on the Bill saying it breached at least three EU directives.

Another major issue was the large amount of water that can be extracted before registration or licensing is required. To register, the threshold is 25 cubic metres (equivalent to the needs of 25 houses). In contrast, it is 10 cubic metres in Northern Ireland and Scotland. To obtain a licence, the threshold is 2,000 cubic metres, the equivalent of a town with a population of 8,000 such as Dungarvan.

“In the North, you need a licence if it is 20 cubic metres,” said Ms McGoff. “So if you step over the Border to the South you can use 100 times more water before you need a licence.”