Friday 5 August 2011

National water agency a vital link in supply chain

THE MEMORANDUM of Understanding between the Government and the EU-ECB in November 2010 referred to the transfer of responsibility for water services from local authorities to a water utility.

There are 34 local authorities of greatly differing sizes responsible for the provision of water supply and sewerage services. The creation of a single water authority presents big challenges, but also offers great opportunities.

If one did some research into what appear to be the problems with Ireland’s water supply you would likely find that quality, leakage levels, age of the pipe network and – somewhat further down the list – security of supply are difficulties frequently discussed.

From an engineering and management perspective our water quality would compare well internationally. Despite well publicised incidents in relation to cryptosporidium and the reporting of E.coli in drinking supplies, which are serious issues yet to be addressed fully, the percentage of water supplied which complies with the drinking water regulations is high. How many countries do Irish people travel to every year where tap water is not considered suitable for drinking and where the local population drink only the bottled variety?

Leakage is always a problem. But given the extended nature of our systems, the estimate of 30 per cent loss is not the most critical difficulty facing our water suppliers. While the age of the network may be an ongoing problem, there has been significant investment in upgrading many of the older small diameter metal mains. Renewal of pipework can in some cases actually lead to an increased demand for water with improved pressure and supply. However, this is not an argument to defer investment in upgrade work on an ongoing basis.

Given the structure of the way water is delivered on a 34 local authority basis it is arguable that we have an effective delivery of a mass produced product.

The biggest problem with the water supply, and where we fall down when compared with our counterparts in Europe, is security. The relationship between the production capacity of our water treatment plants and the maximum demand for water is generally too close for comfort in the Republic.

Cities are especially dependent on water supply. For high-rise apartments and office blocks, the option of using tankers in emergency situations would be inadequate. While the Dublin situation has been widely reported, the actual capacity is close to or at average consumption levels. Within many European cities the capacity, or available water, is up to twice the demand figure. Worse still is our ability to cater for the eventuality that a large element of the system either fails or has to be taken out of service for maintenance. Again the situation is most pronounced in Dublin. But the 2009 cryptosporidium outbreak in Galway highlighted the lack of standby capacity.

Having been involved in the water supply area for more than 20 years and having seen other organisations in operation, I can say that our operational staff are as good as any in Europe but our security of supply falls far short of what is required.

For all sorts of historical reasons, we have never sought or managed to provide a satisfactory level of standby or spare capacity and the situation is most acute in the Dublin region. During last winter, when we hit -17 degrees, other countries would have had temperatures of less than -20 degrees but their water supplies did not suffer to the same extent as ours. This is partly because their pipes are better protected, but also where they did have extra bursts, their spare capacity came to the rescue.

Dublin City Council recently announced that the impoundment reservoir at Roundwood, together with the Blessington lakes, were at a low level following a particularly dry March and April and that there was a danger of a water shortage later in the summer. This happened in 1991 and in 1995, but additional capacity just came on stream in 1995 and problems were avoided. In many other countries extended drought conditions prevail but the reason they do not have shortages is that their excess capacity is much higher than in Ireland.

The potential efficiency from organising water services nationally and benefiting from the specialisation and improvements in expertise make a compelling case for having a national authority, where aspects such as design of networks, district metering, instrumentation, leakage control, electrical expertise and analytical services could all be brought to a much higher level.

A national water authority would also allow an unbiased appraisal of our resources and target areas which had potential to exploit those resources in a sustainable manner. Our natural water resources, forecast to be the “new oil”, would be the envy of many other countries. Under the present system, we don’t really know how much water costs per cubic metre – unlike most other countries. Determining that cost would be one of the first objectives of a water authority.

As a vital resource, essential for public health, water must be preserved and we should note that Article 9 of the water framework directive requires full cost recovery to be put in place. The funding mechanism is a political taxation measure.

When we consider domestic metering, the figure quoted is €550 million, to be taken from the National Pension Reserve Fund. Metering in Ireland would involve much more effort per dwelling than elsewhere in Europe as we have so many more individual house connections than most other countries. Given the so many more pressing needs for spending on the water network, and on the treatment plants, it would seem that the policy of universal metering should be re-examined.

Dublin at the moment urgently needs probably 200 million litres of a strategic reserve, not to service a future population but to provide an adequate level of service for the existing population. It also needs new pumps and mains to allow that strategic reserve to be transferred to different parts of the region. Other areas of the State also need similar arrangements, but because of the high-rise nature of the city and county it is more acute in the Dublin area at present.

The obvious question is what about the Shannon proposal? Dublin City Council estimated the cost as roughly the same as that of metering all households. This should be the subject of discussion though I don’t have enough information to make any judgment on the Shannon proposal. The choice to install meters could be a decision not to have sufficient water available for critical times.

If we get nothing else right in the future we really do need to provide adequate security of supply to cater for temperature variations and climatic variations and to allow for the requirement of having to shut down plant for repairs and routine maintenance.

Danny O’Connor retired recently from the inspectorate in An Bord Pleanála. He was county engineer with Fingal County Council from 1993 to 2001 and senior engineer on water with Dublin County Council from 1984 to 1991.

Irish Times

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