Why is our water supply system so precarious?

A new EPA report highlights a range of failures and points the finger at Irish Water

Irish Water

Irish Water


The latest report card on Irish Water highlights a range of failures and presents further evidence that Ireland has a water supply network that is far from reliable.

This week’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on public drinking water supplies notes that the lack of robust infrastructure is putting the health of more than one million people at risk and acutely impacting the Dublin region, the most populous of the country.

The precarious situation in the capital is being exacerbated by the utility being barely able to meet demand and its difficulties at the Leixlip water treatment plant, which takes water from the Liffey river and supplies much of Dublin and parts of Meath and Kildare.

Last year, boil-water notices affecting 650,000 people were in place for an extended period due to problems at Leixlip.

In its report, the EPA did not hold fire in highlighting issues throughout the country – it said it could take 60 years to remove dangerous lead pipe connections and noted there was inadequate disinfection of infrastructure and poor management of harmful cleaning byproducts such as trihalomethanes.

Irish Water is not resourced enough; it’s not moving quickly enough

In 2018, Irish Water indicated all issues on the EPA’s remedial action list – the most problematic ones – had completion dates no later than 2021. They have since been pushed out to 2024 and beyond, due to funding required not being available before then.

In those circumstances, it is remarkable that overall 99.9 per cent of samples complied with EPA bacterial limits and 99.6 per cent complied with chemical limits. Indeed, levels of compliance have been consistently high since Irish Water became responsible for public supplies in 2014.

Lack of resilience

The problem, however, is a lack of resilience in the system, according to Prof Fiona Regan, director of DCU Water Institute.

She believes the scale of the problem and how it has to be addressed needs to be a Government priority.

“Irish Water is not resourced enough; it’s not moving quickly enough,” she says, adding that taking 60 years to remove lead pipes “is simply not acceptable”.

Prof Regan argues that because Irish Water is not providing appropriate timelines to address problems, “the security issue should be taken away from Irish Water and dealt with at Government level”.

Resolving Dublin’s water problems is a complex task balancing supply and demand, she admits. “But it’s also about management. What happened in Leixlip should not have happened.”

The EPA details three separate incidents last October at Leixlip, which Irish Water operates with Fingal County Council. In November, “very heavy rain led to a significant deterioration in quality of the water coming from the Liffey, and the treatment plant was unable to cope”.

The bottom line was that the boil-water notices had to be extended, says Prof Regan. “Can you imagine if this happened in this period [of Covid-19]?”

Lead piping excavated from the driveway of a home in Sandymount, Dublin, after it ruptured and caused a leak. Uptake of grants to replace private lead pipes has been low. File photograph: Frank Miller
Lead piping excavated from the driveway of a home in Sandymount, Dublin, after it ruptured and caused a leak. Uptake of grants to replace private lead pipes has been low. File photograph: Frank Miller

Major concerns

Dr Tom Collins of the Water Forum, a statutory advisory body, acknowledges the progress on compliance but says he has major concerns about the 67 boil-water notices in place nationwide last year. He says 59 of them lasted for more than 30 days, indicating significant investment in infrastructure is needed.

“Such impacts are extremely inconvenient for Irish Water customers and not acceptable from a public health point of view. It is particularly worrying that more than 15,065 people remain on boil-water notices across the country today and some of them – like the 12,576 people in Lough Talt, Sligo – have been dealing with boil-water notices now for a number of years.”

The forum has repeatedly highlighted the vulnerability of Dublin’s water supply, noting the Liffey supplies more than 80 per cent of the city’s water needs, and main treatment plants at Leixlip, Vartry and Ballymore Eustace are at their maximum production capacity.

“They have no, or very little, ‘headroom’ for further drinking water production” he says. “Dublin water supply on a knife edge, even where there isn’t a drought.”

The long-term solution, the Water Forum believes, must include a national strategy on conservation, including accelerated leakage reduction.

New source

Irish Water accepts Dublin needs a new source of water as the existing sources will not be able to meet long-term requirements.

Due to the pandemic, 95 per cent of Irish Water's 300 construction sites were temporarily demobilised

Some 40 per cent of the flow from the Liffey is needed to supply more than 80 per cent of the city’s water needs. “This means the maximum sustainable raw water abstraction from the Liffey has been reached and there is adequate treatment capacity for what we can sustainably abstract,” the utility said.

Irish Water planned to invest €750 million in water and wastewater projects in 2020 as part of a €2 billion overall investment by 2021. However, due to the pandemic, 95 per cent of its 300 construction sites were temporarily demobilised, which will push back timelines further.

By its own admission, “it will take tens of billions of euro over a number of investment cycles, and many years, to address all of the legacy and emerging issues in the water and waste-water infrastructure while maintaining services to customers and minimising disruption to villages, towns and cities.”

  • Lead exposure 
    Water leaving treatment plants is lead free, Irish Water stresses. It is replacing some 180,000 lead service connections, where feasible. “Commitment to remove public-side lead service connections will have limited impact in reducing lead levels from the customer tap. This is because the majority of lead pipe in the public distribution network is inside the property boundary.”
    Uptake of grants to replace private lead pipes has been low.
  • Leakage 
    Current leakage rate nationally is 42.3 per cent – in the Greater Dublin Area it is to 37.5 per cent. Leakage is more likely in old lead pipes but Dr Collins says the problem is throughout the network, where progress typically is two steps forward, one step back as leaks are fixed and others emerge. Irish Water says it is on track to reduce leakage to 38 per cent and save 166 million litres of drinking water daily nationally by 2021, including 44 million litres in the Greater Dublin Area through investment of €500 million.
  • Disinfection
    Irish Water is investing more than €65 million in upgrading and standardising disinfection systems in treatment plants, pumping stations and reservoirs. On harmful byproducts and pesticide levels, it says, there has been significant progress.