Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this Topical Issue matter. Its primary purpose is to give effect to the potential for additional conservation measures such as a so-called hosepipe ban, but also restrictions on the use of commercial car washing facilities, whether formal or informal. I want to state very clearly that I am not very interested in draconian measures, but we must look at communities such as Skerries in north County Dublin. Only two weeks ago in this Chamber the Minister of State responded to all Members representing Dublin Fingal across all parties on the chronic shortage of water affecting a part of that particular community. People there had no water for 48 hours in some instances. It is appropriate for us to look at the implementation of hosepipe bans, administered either through Irish Water or through the local authority. I believe the latter would be the more appropriate. This is a serious issue that will need to be addressed until such time as the capital and, indeed, other parts of the country have a water supply capable of withstanding more than a few days of sunshine. Today is a beautiful day. The temperature is in the high twenties in Dublin. I am sure it is higher elsewhere in the country. However, so far as I am aware, there are six locations in the State that are without water at the moment, including one location in my constituency and another in County Longford.
I got a text message this morning from a constituent who was advising me that there was a queue for the car wash at a service station in an area of north County Dublin affected by water throttling. I am sure that there will be people who will, perhaps unknowingly, be watering their gardens, potted plants or whatever it might be. We have to take responsibility for the chronic underfunding of water infrastructure in this State not just in the last few years or the last decade, but over generations. We know of the problems. We have identified them through the work programme Irish Water has worked out and through work which local authorities have done for generations.
It is also appropriate for us to recognise that it will be some time before we have the sort of headroom that other European nations have. Many of these operate at between 80% and 90% of capacity whereas Dublin operates at 97%. To put some figures on it, the production capacity for the greater Dublin area is 610 million litres per day. At the height of last summer our usage was 566 million litres per day. On Monday our usage was 609 million litres. The headroom figure for the entire area was 1 million litres. We have to have a real conversation not just with ourselves, but with our neighbours. A Newstalk journalist carried out a straw poll online yesterday. It was not very scientific. There were three questions. It asked what one would do if one saw someone wasting water or watering his or her garden during a period of drought when there were water restrictions in place. More than 60% of respondents said that they would do nothing. We really need to do something rather than saying nothing and not even approaching the person to ask if he or she is aware that a water restriction is in place.
Until such time as we can resolve our supply and leakage issues, among other things, this particular measure, which is contained in the Water Services Act 2007, should be implemented and its administration should be delegated to local authorities.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I thank Deputy Farrell for raising this very timely and important issue. As we speak, large parts of the country are experiencing temperatures above 30°. While this issue is affecting several local authority areas at present, it has the potential to expand into other areas. This debate provides an opportunity to outline and discuss the legislative and administrative arrangements in place to promote water conservation in response to anticipated prolonged periods of excessively hot weather such as that we are currently experiencing.
I agree with Deputy Farrell on the need to promote water conservation. The suggestion of a hosepipe ban is one possible measure, but there are many other measures too and I hope that we can all encourage water conservation at this time. In addressing the specific proposed hosepipe ban measure raised by Deputy Farrell it is important to point out that sections 56(16) to 56(25) of the Water Services Act 2007 already make statutory provision for the introduction of a such a ban and other restrictions designed to conserve water supplies during times of drought. It also provides for the application of a fixed payment notice or, in plain terms, a fine of €125 for breach of such restrictions to facilitate enforcement. These arrangements can come into force when a water services authority, which effectively means Irish Water since legal responsibility for the public water system transferred from local authorities to Irish Water with effect from 1 January 2014, is of the opinion that a serious shortage of water supplies exists or is imminent in an area. This would typically be during or following a prolonged period of dry weather but, in any event, it is possible for Irish Water to make such an order where demand is expected to exceed supply and it becomes necessary to restrict the use of water supplies including restricting certain activities involving the use of water.
Specified activities which may be restricted include watering a garden, watering of recreational parks or sports grounds, irrigating or spraying crops, washing vehicles, the provision of commercial washing services for a vehicle or trailer, or filling or replenishing a swimming pool or an artificial pond or lake. In practice the restrictions may apply to specified activities for all or specified parts of the day. Before making an order the water services authority must give public notice of its intention to make such order and the period for which the order will remain in force through advertising in the public press or broadcast announcements on television or local or national radio. Such provisions are well established in other European and international jurisdictions.
While the option of a hosepipe ban is there, we need to look to other conservation measures and the management of our water supplies. Irish Water’s drought management group has been meeting to assess the risk to drinking water supplies in areas that include the midlands, particularly Athlone and Mullingar; parts of Offaly; Longford; Kilkenny; parts of Donegal; and the greater Dublin area, where the demand for treated water almost meets available supply. The Dublin region is currently using approximately 600 million litres of water a day, which is close to the maximum amount of water that can be treated on a daily basis. Irish Water believes that current storage in the raw water reservoirs in the greater Dublin area, at Roundwood and Pollaphuca are reasonable and they do not see water shortages at present. However, if the summer and autumn continue dry and hot, these reservoirs will come under pressure later in the year.
The main pressures arise from the capacity to produce treated water and Irish Water has seen significant increases of the order of 20 million to 30 million litres per day, which occasionally exceeds production capacity. This is not sustainable for more than a few weeks without the need for some management action to conserve water. Irish Water is considering all measures that might be used to encourage people to conserve water. In the meantime it is asking the public to be mindful of their water usage and to take every measure possible to conserve water. Water usage in the home, garden or business has a direct impact not only on the water user, but on their neighbours, their families and the wider community.
Water supply, particularly in some areas of the State, is on a knife edge. The prevalence of good weather and the lack of rain will only add to that. I fully understand the Minister of State's remark that Irish Water believes the two main facilities for the storage of water for the Dublin area, including Poulaphouca, contain reasonable levels of water. I do not want to become parochial but I obviously know a lot about the Skerries area. The issue is that if the Skerries problem is to recur in the near future because of these issues or if the Skerries reservoir drops below a reasonable level without the pump that we discussed in the House the week before last, we will have restrictions within the county of Dublin. There will be throttling and a potential loss of supply in certain areas on the periphery of the network. As such, even though not all parts of the city or country are affected, there will be water restrictions. Thus, the conservation of water, up to and including the banning of commercial car washes from operating and, potentially, community bans on hoses, should take place. If ever there were reason for Irish Water to utilise section 56 of the Water Services Act, this would be it. As citizens, we should get used to this until such time as our supply issues are resolved.
I appreciate the Minister of State's lengthy reply in which he outlined in detail the measures being taken by Irish Water. It is of little comfort to the individuals all around the country whom he mentioned - in Longford, Offaly, Kilkenny and other places - and who are suffering from water restrictions. It is inevitable that the problem will arise in Dublin over the coming days.
I assure Deputy Alan Farrell that Irish Water is prepared to use section 56 of the 2007 legislation. It has the capability under law to act when it finds treated water is at an unacceptably low level.
The Deputy's overall point is absolutely correct. The national development plan puts aside €8.5 billion to improve the public drinking water and wastewater systems over the next ten years. We have had gross underinvestment for an awfully long time. There is so little headroom considering the volumes of water produced and consumed daily. This will be a strategic problem for the country in the future. Irish Water and the Government, through its funding and the development plan, are committed to addressing it.
The substantial point is that we should be encouraging everybody, not just Irish Water but also members of the Government and Members of the Houses, to promote the appropriate use of a scarce resource at a time when the forecast is for dry weather for the foreseeable future. The Deputy spoke about the possibility of a long, dry summer. The prevalence of extreme weather conditions presents unique problems for the country's water infrastructure. It behoves all authorities of the State, in addition to citizens, to recognise that their use of water will have a direct impact on their neighbours and communities if they do not act responsibly. Most people recognise that in times of scarcity, such as this, it is up to them to be responsible in their use of water.