Fight the Pipe: An Irish water crisis?

To solve Dublin water shortages, plans are in train to build a 170km pipeline from the Shannon. Opponents say it will affect the entire length of the river

Tall as a house and with a smile almost as broad as his shoulders, Liam Minehan is a Tipperary farmer well aware he lives in paradise. "Just walk to that next field and you can see seven counties," he says. As he stands on Chnaoi hill Minehan sweeps his hand over a canvas shaped by the Silvermine and Slieve Felim mountains and the Devil's Bit, where Satan is said to have lost a tooth that became the Rock of Cashel.

Minehan's 50-hectare property is in Pucán, a region that is nourished by the River Shannon and has some of the best land on the island for dairy and beef. To the northeast of Chnaoi, land and sky merge in a silver expanse of water extending from Dromineer to Terryglass. "This really is the Hamptons of Ireland, " he says.

A few kilometres away, Michael Carroll's dairy farm overlooks Keeper Hill, the highest upland in the Shannon region. His property in Kilcoleman, outside Nenagh, has been in his family for generations.

Carroll, Minehan and many farmers around them face periodic challenges, from fears of a milk-price bubble to the impact of Brexit, at a time of tight margins and increased regulation. But something else is keeping them awake at night. They are seriously worried about plans to build a 170km pipeline to take water from the Shannon to Dublin. The route would plough right through their land.


Starting in north Co Tipperary and moving through Co Offaly and Co Kildare to Peamount, in west Co Dublin, the €1.2 billion project, spearheaded by Irish Water, would involve microtunnelling under seven rivers. Access to the pipe would be required at regular intervals for maintenance.

Irish Water and its parent company, Ervia (formerly Bord Gáis), are preparing the strategic infrastructure project for submission to An Bord Pleanála in late 2017. Were the plan approved, work would start in 2019, with a target completion date of 2024.

“People talk about compensation, but there’s nothing that could compensate for this disruption, and the soil will never be the same again,” Minehan says.

“It is not possible to do what they are doing in Irish conditions. If it is raining the land will be a quagmire. Anyone who has ever tried to level a hurley field knows it is impossible to do it without perfect weather.” And “the machinery for it will be massive”.

Farmers and landowners on the route will be asked to grant a 50m-wide way leave, or right of way, for construction, which will become a 20m way leave when built. The underground pipe itself will be 1.6m-2.3m in diameter, requiring a trench of up to 4m deep. “This is far bigger than gas pipelines, and this will be so big that you can walk through it,” Minehan says. “It will fracture rock to a depth of over 6m, and there is no plan to take the spoil off site. In 20 years’ time you will be able to follow a yellow line like an Indian tracker, running from the Clare border to Dublin, delineating land that has been destroyed.”

Expanding Dublin

For Dubliners dependent on the River Liffey, Irish Water’s forward planning may make perfect sense. The State utility estimates that the population of the Greater Dublin Area will rise from 1.5 million people, as it was recorded in the 2011 census, to 2.1 million by 2050.

The figures for this year’s census show a further population shift from west to east, with greater Dublin among the fastest-growing areas; Fingal’s population has risen by 8 per cent since 2011.The population of the entire island is forecast to reach eight million by 2050, having taken two centuries to recover to pre-Famine levels.

Dublin's water supply, which should have a spare capacity of 15-20 per cent, is already "on a knife edge", former environment minister Alan Kelly wrote in this newspaper in December 2014. "Remember the 2013 Web Summit, when international investors adjourned to our capital's restaurants and hotels only to face restrictions on drinking water and showers? " he wrote.

The Web Summit experience, which was related to raw-water chemistry at the Ballymore Eustace treatment plant, next to Pollaphuca reservoir in Co Wicklow, in late October 2013, is one of three events in the past five years that Irish Water cites as highlighting how finely balanced the position is on the east coast.

There was also the exceptional water demand at the time of severe cold weather in the winter of 2010, and the algal bloom on the Vartry reservoir, on the edge of Roundwood in Co Wicklow, in May 2013. A report for Irish Water by the Indecon consultancy estimates that supply difficulties cost the economy €78 million a day.

By 2050, Irish Water calculates, greater Dublin will require an additional 215 million litres of water a day. Extend that demand to some 40 per cent of the population living in the capital and the midlands and the figure rises to an additional 330 million litres a day, the utility says.

Then there are the industrial demands, for industry will continue to be attracted to Ireland by clean water. IDA Ireland forecasts that an additional 100 million litres a day will be required to meet foreign direct investment demands in the near future.

Gerry Geoghegan, Ervia's project manager for the eastern and midlands water-supply project, says it is "not sustainable" that a "city of nearly two million people should be hanging off one single river".

When the Shannon option was first mooted by Dublin city planners, some years ago, Irish Water had not been formed and Bord na Móna was competing with Ervia for responsibility for the utility. This was a time when water was acknowledged internationally as the “new oil”.

Bord na Móna drew up a plan, presented to Oireachtas committee members, to build a reservoir on the Offaly-Laois border at Garryhinch. It would be supplied from the Shannon's lowest lake, Lough Derg.

The plan, costed at €450 million, involved an ecopark by the reservoir and 1,000 construction jobs.

When Ervia secured responsibility for Irish Water it set up a project team to look at 10 possibilities for additional supply. Options ranged from drawing water from Lough Ree and Lough Derg, to sourcing groundwater in Fingal and Co Kildare, to building a desalination plant for seawater near the capital. Desalination, and extraction from the Parteen basin, close to the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station, in Co Clare, made the shortlist of two. Parteen was the final choice.

A 10-week statutory period of public consultation has already closed and an environmental impact statement is being prepared.

Neither Irish Water nor ESB could say categorically what impact the extraction would have on electricity generation from Parteen, but both noted it would involve a "small fraction of available water for power generation" while "not impacting on the existing water levels and flows of Lough Derg, Parteen Basin and the old River Shannon". Both said water "abstraction" from hydro-power facilities was "common practice worldwide".

Geoghegan says just 2 per cent of the average flow through Parteen will be drawn off. This means there will be “no impact on the existing water-level storage bands and no impact on statutory compensation flow down the old River Shannon route”.

Climate modelling over 83 years of records demonstrates that had water been taken before now it would have had no impact on flow or water level, Geoghegan says. Ecological surveys are under way to determine the “least constrained” pipeline route. Irish Water intends to publish its final preferred route to Dublin in September.

River Shannon Protection Alliance

None of this has impressed a group of residents and farming, stud-farm and tourism interests around Lough Derg. The River Shannon Protection Alliance, originally formed to oppose Bord na Móna’s plans, has questioned the validity of the project. The alliance is supported by a farmers’ campaign, Fight the Pipe, involving Liam Minehan and his lakeland neighbours.

"It is when we began to scratch the surface that we realised this project makes no sense," says Donal Whelan, a retired teacher who is now a spokesman for the alliance.

It has prepared two submissions. Both draw on legal and engineering expertise, and both argue that the project is unnecessary. Dublin has no shortage of raw water, according to the alliance. The problem is “insufficient treated water”. It also argues that eastern groundwater supplies should be explored.

The alliance notes that since the Ballymore Eustace problems of 2013, upgrades there and at Leixlip, in Co Kildare, have "drastically improved" the capacity to treat water. This, it argues, is much less expensive than spending €1.2 billion on the Shannon pipeline for 330 million litres a day.

The alliance says the focus should be on addressing a leakage rate of more than 40 per cent, which is “comparable to Mexican cities”. Introducing Shannon water would give no incentive to eliminate “profligate waste” of hundreds of millions of litres of water, it says.

The alliance argues that Irish Water has made fundamental errors in its water-deficit forecasting. It claims conservation, influenced by reduced use due to domestic water charges and greater industrial efficiency, is not being taken into account. It notes the Irish Water calculation uses a "more aggressive" prediction model than that used by Dublin City Council in 2006, with meeting projected needs of "high water demand" industries a key factor. The alliance says Dublin could therefore have a water surplus of more than 100 million litres a day.

Irish Water stands over its calculations, which allow for climate change, and says the main water-treatment plants serving the Dublin area have been operating at close to peak capacity in recent years. This has made supplies “vulnerable to disproportionate interruption”, the utility says.

A risky proposal?

The River Shannon Protection Alliance believes that the pipeline would pose serious risks to communities along the river, from the Shannon pot to the estuary. It would affect water quality, ecology, navigation, angling and boat-hire tourism.

The alliance says that an environmental scientist, Jack O’Sullivan, has told it that taking water from the Shannon could contravene the principles of the EU water framework directive. The group says the scheme is being promoted by “vested political and commercial interests” to ensure a “continued inflow of foreign direct investment into Dublin and the east coast”.

The Fight the Pipe campaign says that the “hyperexpensive” project will cost every Irish household €600 to build and that the 50m construction corridor will affect 2,000 hectares of land and threaten livelihoods.

Liam Minehan says that the Irish Farmers' Association "came down here, looking to negotiate for us on compensation for way leave and disruption to livelihoods. But we informed it that we do not want it negotiating on our behalf. The Shannon is a trophy asset as the longest river in Europe with clean water," he says.

“Who says that when this piece of infrastructure is built it won’t be privatised? So what Irish Water is trying to do now is nothing less than a resource grab.”

Parteen Weir: Water from the Shannon

Parteen Weir is a key part of the Shannon hydroelectric scheme, the largest of its type in the world when it was built, in 1924. The weir controls the flow of water to Ardnacrusha, splitting the flow between the dam and the original route of the river.

Gerry Geoghegan of Ervia, Irish Water’s parent company, says the aim is to draw off about 4cu m of water a second – 2 per cent of the average Shannon flow – although 80 years of measurements suggest that this flow varies considerably.

Parteen presents Irish Water with the longest pipeline corridor, but Geoghegan says that taking water close to the mouth of the Shannon limits any effects upstream and “removes the possibility of introducing invasive species into other rivers”.

The hydroelectric scheme already regulates lake levels and river flow, he says, and taking hydropower water within the existing band will harm neither.

Geoghegan says that this option will allow for extending supply to communities along the route in the midlands and within the capital’s expanding commuter belt (an area that his project team describes as the “benefiting corridor”). Parts of Tipperary, Laois, Offaly, Westmeath and Meath are identified as “potential benefiting areas”.

In tandem with this, 8,000km of water mains in the capital, much of it up to 100 years old, will be repaired to reduce the leaks that currently allow the loss of more than 40 per cent of the water they carry.

Irish Water aims to cut that loss to 20 per cent but no lower, as research in Britain indicates that repairs are uneconomic after that point, Geoghegan says.