Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

7:00 pm

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Senator Ryan.

In 2006, Dublin City Council published a draft feasibility study in which three options were considered to meet the projected water demands of the greater Dublin area. The options were to abstract water from the River Shannon at Lough Ree, abstraction from the River Slaney, River Barrow or both and abstraction and desalination of sea water from Dublin Bay. The second option, the abstraction of water from the River Slaney and River Barrow, was ruled out because it was considered that this source would not provide the required volume of water. The third option, desalination of water from Dublin Bay, was also discarded as it was deemed to be too expensive. The first option is to abstract from Lough Ree 300 million litres of water per day for the greater Dublin area and a further 50 million to 100 million litres for other local authority areas located along the proposed pipeline.

Estimated future water demands are based on a number of criteria, including the need to respond to the possible effects of climate change. In addition, it has been predicted that greater affluence will result in increased per capita water consumption. The need to facilitate potential future industries with high water demand is also taken into account. The feasibility study makes no mention of the need to put into practice conservation measures such as rain water harvesting for sanitary flushing and garden irrigation and grey water reuse on site.

Current leakages and losses from the water supply system in the greater Dublin area amount to 65 litres per household per day and an additional 161 litres per day through leaky pipe distribution. This mismanagement by the local authority is unacceptable. In two short years from July 1998 to 2000, the Dublin water conservation project reduced leakage in the Dublin area from 40% to 30% of water supply. Regrettably, the feasibility study makes no mention of such conservation measures.

Total losses of water from the Dublin system amount to 200 million litres per day or around 60% of the quantity Dublin City Council proposes to abstract from Lough Ree. The Government has committed itself to the national spatial strategy, of which the gateway towns of Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore are part. Given that the population of these towns is projected to grow by 60,000 by 2020, we in the midlands need to plan for our future water needs, rather than allowing the needs of the people of Dublin to supersede our own.

Westmeath County Council and other local authorities may expect to satisfy these future water needs by tapping into the proposed pipeline from Athlone to Dublin. The Athlone area has experienced severe water problems this year, with poor quality water from the River Shannon causing severe difficulties in existing water treatment facilities, resulting in water being rationed during the day and turned off at night. Senators will be aware of the recent cryptosporidium contamination of the water supply in Galway, a crisis that could easily recur.

I may be a lay observer but it is clear that the lack of consultation with members of the public and the clandestine manner in which Dublin City Council, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authority executives are managing this matter are wrong. I understand the final decision will be one for the Minister rather than elected members of the relevant local authorities.

The effects of major abstraction on the capacity of Lough Ree and the River Shannon for recreation, navigation and fisheries have not been addressed in the feasibility study. I am acutely aware of the importance of tourism, tourist angling, pleasure cruising and sailing to the midlands, a region in which massive investment has been made in marinas, club houses and amenities. To damage in any way this important resource would be a disaster to the region's economy and the quality of life of its people. The significant commitment of local fishing organisations to restock the lakes of County Westmeath is to be commended. This is, however, a vulnerable process as fluctuation in water levels would be most harmful to the area's rich fish stocks.

The Shannon catchment area contains a significant number of vulnerable national heritage areas, NHAs, and special areas of conservation, SACs, which are under serious threat. Knowledge of the effects of abstraction on these areas is inadequate. While no one denies that the projected water needs of the greater Dublin area must be addressed, I fail to understand the reason Fingal County Council has applied for planning permission to construct a landfill in an area which has a rich resource of underground lakes and springs. The utilisation of these aquifers along with conservation, recycling, rain harvesting, the possible storage of excess water from the River Shannon during the winter months and, if necessary, desalination could, with a little vision, meet the projected needs of the greater Dublin area without abstracting water from the River Shannon and Lough Ree.

Dublin City Council's proposal to abstract water from Lough Ree for the purpose of meeting a projected growth in the demand for water in the greater Dublin area is a matter of grave concern for citizens. I call on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to set the record straight and I ask Members who represent constituencies in the Shannon basin to consult their constituents and enter into a full, honest and open debate on this important issue.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I cannot understand the reason consideration is being given to a proposal to pump surface water from the River Shannon to Dublin to meet the water needs of the capital when the city is surrounded on two sides by the north Leinster aquifer. This aquifer, which stretches from Daingean, County Offaly, through counties Kildare and Meath and across north Fingal until it enters the sea between Balbriggan and Rush, can be viewed on the Environmental Protection Agency's website. It has been mapped and tested by the EPA for nitrates and coliforms. Although it is the largest and cleanest aquifer in the country, it has never been surveyed for its potential output as a public water source. This output can be estimated based only on the groundwater extraction at Bog of the Ring in Fingal. The output at this point, which accounts for approximately one hundredth of the total aquifer, is 3.5 to 4 million litres per day. On this basis, potential overall output may be as high as 350 million to 400 million litres per day, equivalent to the estimated shortfall in the Dublin water output.

Five hydrogeologists have agreed that at least three other potential public water sources could be tapped into between Bog of the Ring and Swords. The only people who understand and are aware of the importance and potential of the aquifer are those involved in horticulture who currently use it through a complex network of private and industrial wells.

Groundwater is currently under-used, with only 5% of the public water supply derived from groundwater sources. This figure compares with figures of 99% in Denmark, 72% in Germany and 70% in the Netherlands. The risk of contamination of surface water is much greater than that of groundwater. Estimated costs of removing water from the north Leinster aquifer are approximately one tenth of the cost of pumping water from the River Shannon. The cost of purifying water from the aquifer would be a fraction of that required to purify surface water.

The Government must protect our water sources. A national policy is required for the management of all water resources, particularly in the context of predicted water shortages and recent water-related health problems in Galway. Identification, development and protection of locally and regionally important groundwater resources such as the north Leinster aquifer are vital. The Minister must act now on this strategic issue of national importance.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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This is my second visit to the Chamber today but my first time to address the Senators present. I congratulate new Members on all sides, including my former colleagues in the other House who have been promoted to the Upper House, Senators who were successfully returned and Senator Moylan on his elevation to the position of Cathaoirleach. I thank Senator McFadden for raising this important issue and Senator Ryan for the important points he made.

Ireland will experience significant climate change impacts, even if international efforts are successful in stopping or slowing down the current rate of increase in average global temperature. Research on future impacts of climate change on Ireland predicts changes in rainfall frequency and intensity. This will require us to invest in measures to reduce the adverse impact of such changes such as infrastructural investment to deal with more intense floods and droughts and to ensure that water supplies continue tobe able to service social and economic requirements.

Water is a finite resource and we have a collective responsibility to manage it effectively for future generations. Local authorities, which are at the heart of this challenge, have a range of facilities available to them to produce, deliver and conserve sufficient stocks of water to meet current and anticipated needs. The Department co-ordinates and finances a major programme of investment in improved water supply infrastructure. Details of currently approved projects are set out in the water services investment programme 2007-09 which the Minister published only last month. A copy of the document is available in the Oireachtas Library. The programme includes some 330 schemes worth €2.6 billion which relate exclusively to water supply.

The National Development Plan 2007-2013 includes an increase of 27% — to €4.7 billion — in planned spending on water services by comparison to the previous NDP. Substantial increases in water treatment, storage and delivery capacity will be achieved on foot of this investment. Schemes completed in the period 1997 to 2006 have already produced additional drinking water treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 1.2 million.

Conservation of water supplies has an equally important role to play in avoiding water shortages and developing sustainable water use practices. Finding additional water supply capacity through leakage control and better supply system management is preferable to capital investment in new infrastructure. It reduces environmental pressures from extra raw water abstraction, treatment and delivery. Some €288 million is available to local authorities from the Department's national water conservation programme for measures to reduce leakage and other unaccounted for water losses from public water supplies. By the end of the year, almost all non-domestic water supplies will be metered, giving the business community a means and incentive to determine how to reduce water consumption, providing both a financial and environmental benefit.

It is of fundamental importance that we continue to plan strategically for future pressures on water services whether from climate change or other influences. A passive approach will not do. There must be a concerted, planned and co-ordinated response. The Water Services Act 2007 provides for that and requires all local authorities to manage their water services functions within a framework that requires six-year strategic plans to be drawn up for each area.

Ahead of the legislation, many local authorities have moved to plan for their long-term needs. For example, the Dublin, Cork and Limerick local authorities have completed studies with minimum horizons of 20 years. The strategic water plans that local authorities must draw up under the Act will address current and projected challenges and identify appropriate responses to changing pressures and demands. Detailed guidance on the preparation of these plans is to be available shortly from the Department and I will bring the related provision of the Act into force soon afterwards.

Overall, I am satisfied that with adequate commitment and planning by all stakeholders, the integrated policies, strategies and financial resources being put in place will ensure the national water supply infrastructure will be capable of meeting all reasonable demands in the future. Senator McFadden raised issues referred to previously in the Dáil by Deputy O'Rourke. I will send the additional information to the Senator, as I was not aware it was part of tonight's debate.