Boil notices increase despite investment in water infrastructure
EPA points to funding, management and operational issues behind contaminations
A shopper in Leixlip, Co Kildare, stocks up on drinking water following the boil water notice’. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
When news spread across tens of thousands of homes in Dublin, Meath and Kildare on Tuesday that a boil water notice was being slapped on their property due to contamination at a plant in Leixlip, it was greeted with a fair degree of confusion.
What exactly did the homeowner need to do? How long would it be until the problem was fixed? How did it happen anyway? Is my house in the affected area?
These were the seemingly simple questions that some of 600,000 people affected sought answers to when they logged on to the Irish Water website, only to discover that the site was down.
In the Dáil, an array of politicians from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald revealed they too were in the affected area.
Speaking to The Irish Times, McDonald said the issue was proving to be a costly one.
“Obviously everyone is inconvenienced. A lot of people are having to buy water, which is a real stretch and expense that people don’t need.
“For families with small children, older people and those with illnesses this goes beyond an inconvenience and is a matter of health.
“People need to know when this will end. Above all else they need assurances that this won’t happen again and that their water is safe.”
Varadkar has previously said that a multibillion-euro investment had reduced the number of such boil notices across the country.
“On the wider picture, a significant Irish Water capital investment programme worth €10 billion is under way,” he said. “It is impossible to do everything in one year . . . but it is part of Project Ireland 2040. It is a massive investment programme. It has helped to reduce the number of boil water notices and the number of leaks around the country.“
But that is not the full picture.
Increased financial investment may have reduced overall notices, but the year-on-year trend is going in the wrong direction.
In 2018, 44 boil water notices were issued, affecting 14 counties and 100,000 people. This is in comparison to 42 such notices which were in place the previous year.
Irish Water found cryptosporidium – a waterborne parasite that can cause illness including nausea and diarrhoea – in 25 public water supplies in 2018, up from 17 supplies in 2017 and 12 in 2016, which the Environmental Protection Agency said was a cause for concern.
After years of public backlash against attempts to introduce water charges, the Government agreed a new funding arrangement for Irish Water in September 2017.
Under the new model, Irish Water is being funded in respect of domestic water services by the exchequer for both capital and current purposes. This amounted to €1.1 billion in 2018, of which €500 million is capital.
Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said Irish Water is actually getting the level of investment which was originally promised as far back as 2014.
The reason behind the boil notices and cryptosporidium detections is not financial, he says. “With drinking water, I am not of the view that is a funding issue,” he says, saying he believes it is a management or operational issue.
A recent report by the EPA which details the reasons for the 25 recent cryptosporidium detections appear to show that it is a bit of both.
In eight supplies, the treatment processes or infrastructure were not good enough to treat cryptosporidium effectively. In seven supplies, there were no treatment processes in place at all at the water treatment plant to treat cryptosporidium. In three supplies, operational issues were blamed.
In the case of the Leixlip plant this week, a mechanical fault meant there was a danger that untreated water in the network could contain cysts of cryptosporidium and giardia.
“What’s really significant about in this plant in Leixlip is that it was already subject to an EPA audit this year after a significant failure,” says Ó Broin.
A report by the EPA found that a series of events occurred in March which presented a “significant risk” to the safety of the water supply, including a pump issue which went undetected for almost eight hours. A spokeswoman for Irish Water could not confirm whether that incident was related to this week’s boil notice, saying that it was currently being investigated as part of an audit.
Generally speaking, Irish Water says an “enhanced and systematic testing regime of drinking water“ has been implemented.
“During 2018, we devised a standardised monitoring protocol which has resulted in a more robust risk-based monitoring programme for supplies at risk from cryptosporidium.”
The utility says it made “significant investments” last year in water treatment process equipment, and pointed towards the size and scale of the “legacy issues and condition” of some of the water treatment plants.
“Overall, the EPA found that public water supplies were 99 per cent compliant in 2019, which is an extremely high level of compliance with the drinking water regulations.”