Thursday, 6 December 2007
Water Quality: Statements
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí a labhair ar an ábhar seo. I am pleased to apprise the Seanad of the current status of the implementation of water quality improvement plans under the rural water programme of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The rural water programme is an integral part of the water services investment programme. It has put in place a large number of new water and sewerage scheme in our cities and towns in recent years. The focus of the rural water programme is on improving the quality and efficiency of water services for the 1.5 million people who live outside main urban areas.
This year, a record €142 million has been provided for the rural water programme, reflecting a major programme of upgrading works. It is now being progressed to bring the quality of group water schemes into compliance with required standards. Under the previous national development plan, more than €575 million was spent on the upgrading of quality deficient group water schemes. The new national development plan is set to continue this high level of investment, with a further €850 million for the rural water sector.
One primary objective of the rural water programme is to provide all group water schemes with a quality, treated water supply. The priority is to deal as soon as possible with all schemes falling within the remit of the drinking water EU directive. These are schemes serving 50 or more persons or schemes with a commercial element.
In 1997, the administration of the various measures under the rural water programme was devolved to the local authorities. Responsibility for the selection and approval of schemes, and payment of grants, rests with county councils. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government retains overall responsibility for policy matters. The funding for the programme comes from the Exchequer through annual block grants allocated to councils by the Department. The individual allocations reflect the level of activity locally and are based on work programmes submitted by councils.
The programme is being implemented in a spirit of partnership and co-operation between the main stakeholders which includes the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, rural organisations such as the IFA, ICMSA and ICA, local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
To understand the scale and complexity of the water quality issue in rural areas it is important to have an appreciation of the scale of the group schemes sector and of the services provided. According to the 2006 census, there are more than 5,500 group water schemes, serving around 173,000 households. The majority of group water schemes, more than 3,700, vary in size from two to 15 houses and are not subject to the drinking water regulations.
Some 1,800 schemes have been identified as falling within the remit of the drinking water regulations on the basis they serve more than 50 people or supply a commercial operation. Some 728 of these schemes have their own private water source. The remainder obtain their supply of treated water through the local authority public supply networks. Water quality in these schemes is generally satisfactory and on a par with that of the parent scheme.
Water quality problems are mainly experienced by group water schemes dependent on private sources such as rivers, lakes and boreholes and have no proper water treatment and disinfection equipment in place. In 2002, Ireland was found by the European Court of Justice to be in breach of its obligations under the drinking water directive by failing to ensure compliance with drinking water quality standards in group water schemes and a considerable number of smaller public schemes, on the basis they exceeded the bacteriological parameters of the directive for drinking water.
In 2003, the national rural water monitoring committee compiled an action plan setting out a strategy for upgrading the group water schemes falling within the remit of the drinking water directive. The target was to bring all relevant schemes into compliance. The plan has been instrumental in focussing the targets of the rural water programme and achieving the objective of improved water quality for rural schemes.
The 728 privately sourced group water schemes that fall within the remit of the drinking water regulations serve more than 88,000 domestic connections. Under the national rural water monitoring committee's action plan, upgrading solutions to ensure compliance with the drinking water directive have now been identified for all 728 schemes. The figures involved will demonstrate to the House the extend of the response required.
Up to 224 group water schemes are being provided with water treatment facilities through bundled design, build, operate contracts. Up to 34 schemes will receive stand-alone water treatment facilities. Some 104 quality deficient group water schemes are being taken into public charge by county councils. Some 99 schemes will decommission poor quality sources of supply and take new connections from local authority public water supply networks. Up to 170 will have disinfection-sterilisation facilities provided while 97 schemes have been absorbed into the public network by the local authorities.
The current status of the upgrading programme is that 72%, 525 schemes, serving 80%, 70,248, of domestic connections will be completed by end of 2007. Work on a further 56 schemes is under way and 103 schemes at the advanced planning stage, likely to commence construction early in 2008. The remaining 44 schemes are at various stages in planning with construction expected to commence by mid 2008.
Through the policy of rationalisation and amalgamation of smaller group water schemes, particularly in counties Galway and Mayo, where almost 40% of the identified group water schemes are located, substantial cost and operational efficiencies have been achieved. In tackling the deficiencies in rural drinking water supplies, we have not only concentrated on infrastructural investment in group water schemes but adopted a holistic approach by continuing and intensifying numerous measures to strengthen the sustainability, delivery and management of water services in general.
In the delivery of the programme all stakeholders are agreed that the provision of costly water treatment projects for group water schemes without complementary actions to prevent pollution of the source is unsustainable.
To this end several source protection pilot projects to protect vulnerable group water scheme sources from the threat of pollution from agriculture, commercial activity and septic tanks are being implemented. The intention is that lessons learned from the pilot projects will allow workable and sustainable solutions to be adopted for preventing source contamination and will inform future policy on source protection for group schemes nationally.
A range of new, small scale wastewater collection and treatment systems as a means of meeting the requirements of small rural communities are being tested. The hope is that these alternative collection and treatment systems will prove appropriate for use in small rural communities with low population density and site specific environmental conditions, such as shallow bedrock, high ground-water conditions and limited effluent discharge locations. As part of the same pilot process, the potential for a greater role for group sewerage schemes will be also examined. We have committed to a review of the group sewerage scheme grants when the results of the pilot schemes are available by the middle of next year.
To help develop the skills of the group schemes personnel to meet the challenges of delivering consistently high quality water to consumers and effectively managing the operations and finances of their schemes, the remit of the water services national training group now includes training and development for the group water scheme sector. Management development programmes have been devised specifically for group water schemes with the objective of providing group scheme managers and committees with the capacity to respond to a rapidly evolving water services industry. It also aims to allow them to manage and operate schemes in an atmosphere of greater regulation, coupled with increased consumer demands for higher levels of service.
Under the Water Services Act 2007, provision is made for the introduction of a licensing system to regulate and develop the operations of the group water sector. The Department consulted widely with the group scheme movement when the Act was being drafted and the sector has given its support to the introduction of licensing. The licensing regime will put groups on a much more organised footing and will help to secure the long-term viability of those community water schemes that have served well over the past 40 years.
Overall, therefore, the picture is a positive one. The rural water programme provides a structured and focussed approach to the upgrading and renewal of rural water supply systems, which has, as a core objective, the improvement of water quality in private group water schemes. The programme is backed by unprecedented levels of Exchequer spending which has facilitated remarkable progress in the past four years in bringing the water supplied by group schemes into line with European standards. We are now in the position of having improvement works completed and in place for the majority of substandard schemes. We can look forward to completing the task in 2008 when the group schemes sector will be able to report full compliance with EU regulatory requirements.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I assume that we are discussing not only water provision by group schemes but also public water provision. I salute the pioneers who put the rural water schemes in place between the 1960s and 1980s. They were great volunteers and this was the most radical improvement in people's lifestyles after rural electrification. Those people followed the spirit of the co-operative movement inspired by Horace Plunkett. The challenge for community activists now is to provide broadband in rural areas.
There are at least 45,000 families connected to a group scheme with a private source — although the Minister of State cited up to 50,000. Ireland must achieve good water status by 2015 as set out in the Water Framework Directive. Section 4(1) of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977 contains our phosphorus regulations.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency's recent report, 70.2% of Irish rivers have a satisfactory water quality and the level of serious pollution continues to be low; 83.8% of our lakes have a satisfactory water quality — although some people put that figure as high as 90%.
Senator Wilson must share my pride in Lough Sheelin in our area, County Cavan, which is one of the best brown trout angling lakes in Europe. A local monitoring committee, set up under the auspices of the county council with community involvement, including farmers, has brought it to a high standard. I hope that bit of parochialism is allowed in the midst of a national debate.
There is an increasing trend in the number of ground water samples showing zero contamination which is good news. To meet EU water standards we must use proper filtration systems against continuing threats. We need to protect our water supply proactively by minimising the risk of contamination of supplies caused by runs from septic tanks, slurry pits and all industrial and local authority outlets. There should be a faster reaction time when problems occur. People should not have to boil drinking water for any length of time.
City and county councils are responsible for the provision of water services and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has an overall policy and funding role. County councils provide direct grant aid for rural water schemes which is implemented in partnership with national and local monitoring committees. This partnership model of delivery, combining the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, rural organisations, local authorities and the Department is important because it gives people a sense of ownership. In my county, 35% of the population depends on group schemes. From the beginning through the good auspices and fine initiatives of Cavan County Council we have pioneered an inclusive decision-making process, integrating the various sectors on the local county monitoring committee.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, of a special package of €5.8 million for water schemes which were at risk of pollution by e-coli and cryptosporidium. Farmers are making an input under the nitrates directive to which it is difficult to adhere but farm waste management grants help them to meet that responsibility. People can never underestimate the loyalty of farmers to their communities and their commitment to the environment. There has been a mistaken assumption that farmers would be less than proactive in protecting the environment but nobody has a greater vested interest in it. I welcome the fact that the Minister has set up a specialist group in his Department to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities in identifying vulnerable supplies and dealing actively with them.
Each county must provide a strategic rural water plan which feeds into the national monitoring committee. Local authorities are expected to supervise the provision of good quality water but they do not receive the proper resources from central government for that role which adversely affects their finances.
The thrust of planning policy is to acknowledge the one-off house but also to develop small towns and villages. However, there is a cap of €10,000 in grant aid per house, in a new development, towards the provision of water and sewerage services which has serious implications for planning and development in rural areas. For example, if a village were to extend by 20 houses, a new public water supply would cost approximately €800,000 and maybe more for a sewerage scheme. If only €10,000 per house is available in grant aid the local authority would realise only €200,000, leaving a shortfall of €600,000 to be raised through development charges and local taxation or by way of a punitive tax on the householders which they could not pay. This will thwart the development of small towns and villages and threatens proper planning. It is at variance with a policy that seeks to limit one-off rural dwellings and encourage the expansion of towns and villages. County managers and officials have been lobbying the Department to amend this policy. Ordinary people cannot take the brunt of this and absorb the greater charges. The Government will have to properly fund this area and provide water to small towns and villages. I would like a specific response on this point.
I recently raised on the Adjournment the issue of group sewerage scheme grants being raised to the level of group water scheme grants and am delighted to see this matter before the House. The Minister of State mentioned this in his contribution, a pilot project has been conducted and a valuation completed but I am sorry that it will be some months before it is accepted because a better grant for group sewerage schemes would mean a better uptake. If it takes six months to be accepted it will be even longer before people complete their applications. If the grant is to be improved we should make those who could apply as part of a group sewerage scheme aware of this fact in the interim so they can consider their applications. In this way applications will be ready for submission by the time the scheme is improved, which will limit time lag.
I commend the plans to improve water quality under the rural water programme. The programme contains measures to address deficiencies in group water schemes, small public water and sewerage schemes and private supplies where no other supply is available. I echo the comments of others regarding the people who have volunteered their time to this programme around the country. There is a great sense of ownership that has almost reached the point that people do not want to return groups schemes to councils because they feel they can do a better job. The programme is essential to our goal of ensuring the highest quality of water in rural areas.
The primary focus of the 2007 rural water programme was on measures to eliminate water quality deficiencies in group water schemes with private sources. I know from personal experience interacting with people in Donegal that this is working. These schemes have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, as failing to meet mandatory drinking water standards. Water is a fundamental part of our lives and we should expect highly competent water systems with standards on a par with EU drinking water standards. I spent a year in Nigeria and understand the difficulties a lack of drinking water can present. Galway has recently experienced serious problems in this regard that forced people to boil, cool and filter water.
The basic requirement for water quality is first and foremost the existence of safe drinking water standards. Some 41% of total programme funding has been allocated to alleviate these water quality deficiencies and this highlights the direct approach of the programme to raising standards in water quality deficiencies.
The report Water Quality in Ireland 2006, published by the EPA, stresses the need for improvement in water quality. The challenge we face is to have all waters, both surface and groundwater, in good or higher status by 2015 under the water framework directive, WFD, 2000/60/EC. I am glad the EU is acting as big brother on standards and, while I appreciate Ireland does not need this approach, it is important that standards exist because they encourage people to strive for them. In my home town there is neither a sewerage scheme nor a water supply and I am delighted that the EU directives ensure towns with a population of more than 1,500 must meet certain standards. This will drive the advancement of water and sewerage in my area.
The recorded annual incremental improvement in surface water quality, based on that occurring between 2005 and 2006 and for the three year period since 2004, would, if maintained, leave Ireland potentially falling short of the water framework directive target in the time left for remediation. A recent study concluded that if current land uses continue unchanged, it will be very difficult to meet the demands of the water framework directive.
In March 2007 a €142 million spending plan on rural water supplies was announced, surpassing the 2006 figure by 9% and representing an investment in rural water 12 times greater than that of 1997. In 2007 the rural water treatment programme financed the completion of new water treatment plants for 77 schemes serving 16,200 households nationally. These, along with other recently finished schemes, will solve water quality issues for more than 30,000 rural households that can now look forward to having in place first rate water supplies.
Start-up funding is provided in the programme for 35 new treatment plants that will accommodate 10,400 households in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon as part of a merger of more than 100 group schemes in the west and north west. Funding has been also allocated under this year's programme to allow 196 group water schemes, serving more than 16,000 houses, to be taken over by county councils. A further 35 schemes, serving up to 4,400 houses, have been provided to secure new connections from local authority public water supply networks. Such water schemes represent the serious commitment of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to aid a unified effort to meet water quality standards.
The increased expenditure allocations for the rural water programme, funded under the national development plan, NDP, this year mark a progressive step in the area of water quality in Ireland. Expenditure allocations for new water treatment plants for group schemes with private sources is up €6 million compared to the 2006 figure. Financial allocations to 196 group water schemes being taken over by local authorities have increased by 46% on last year. I commend the councils on the tremendous work they are doing in this regard.
The most recent European Environment Agency report in 2005 stated, regarding Ireland's perspective on water quality, that "eutrophication of rivers, lakes and tidal waters continues to be the main threat to surface waters with agricultural run-off and municipal discharges being the key contributors". The EPA's report on water quality, published this year, echoes these sentiments and highlights the problem of eutrophication of waters and the urgent need to address the issue. In 2006 there were 34 reported fish kills compared to 45 the previous year. This annual rate, albeit reduced compared to some previous years, is unacceptably high as each fish kill represents catastrophic environmental disturbance to aquatic life. The consequence of poor water quality is such disturbance to aquatic life and greatly affects the wider community. It is not only run-off, however, that pollutes rivers and the Foyle is an example of this. Raw sewage is still entering the Foyle, the matter is not being progressed and this must end. River pollution from agricultural sources, whether deliberate or accidental, is being addressed and perpetrators are being penalised under the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, REPS. However, we must ensure we continue with this programme and deliver these schemes even when a council, local authority or the national Government presides over the pumping of raw sewage into rivers.
Approximately 25% of groundwater locations exceeded the mean guide nitrate concentration for drinking water, an increase of 2% from the previous reporting period 2001-03, with 2% breaching the mandatory limit, the same proportion as in the previous reporting period. Breaches of drinking water standards pose great dangers to the public. Regulation of nitrate levels in drinking water is necessary as excess levels can cause conditions such as methemoglobinemia in young children.
I will give the name later.
Quality in 69 water bodies from 21 estuarine and coastal areas from 2002 to 2006 showed that two, or 2.9%, were potentially eutrophic and 13, or 18.8%, were eutrophic. Eutrophication is a major threat to an aquatic environment and if ignored can lead to decreased number of species and biodiversity.
The implications of failing to meet standards and targets in water quality should never be realised. This system of incentives encourages universal participation in improving water quality and simplifies the process of meeting EU targets. It is not good to blame particular individuals or groups because we all share the responsibility to ensure the highest quality of water in rural areas. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and the Irish Countrywomen's Association, and local authorities must continue to work together as the main stakeholders of the rural water programme to ensure water quality standards continue to be met. I wish the Department, its officials and local councils well in the huge job ahead.
I congratulate all who are involved in group water and sewerage schemes, which not only provide a basic service but offer benefits for the environment. None of us can survive without clean water. It is difficult to explain how, in 2007, there are people who cannot avail of such basic services. The ongoing work in this area will ensure access for all to water that is fit to consume. This is important for us and for river and marine life.
I shall avoid the trap into which my learned colleague, Senator Keaveney, fell in trying to pronounce the names of some of the contaminants that have featured in this discussion. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, who is my fellow countywoman. This is an important debate. Water quality has come to the fore of late given recent events in Ennis, Galway and elsewhere, thus ensuring it received more publicity than might otherwise have been the case.
It is important our water is clear of the various types of micro-organisms and parasites that have featured in contamination outbreaks. Many factors can affect water quality. Water treatment schemes may struggle to deal with factors such as heavy rainfall, drought, soil type, topography and so on. Residential development and agricultural activities can also be a factor. There can even be cases where it is a question of the breakdown of electricity supply. In some instances, there is a lack of consistency in the cleaning process.
The quality of water in private group schemes, in particular, is a serious concern. The European Commission has given the Government its final warning in terms of ensuring water quality. There has been a high level of contamination, arising in many cases as a consequence of leaks, many of which have not been rectified. The Health Service Executive has carried out testing at various intervals but this seems to be inadequate.
Farmers are frequently blamed for water contamination as a result of the leakage of raw sewage. There has been much publicity of such incidents and it is the easy option when pointing the finger. There are undoubtedly instances of such pollution but the scale of contamination from this source has declined in recent years. This is a welcome development. I welcome the provision of grants under the farming waste management programme. Contamination by raw sewage is the most visible source of contamination and the one that is most publicised. However, it is not necessarily the main source of pollution.
In the case of private wells, owners are responsible for monitoring their own water supply. If they require an analysis of the water quality, they must contact the environmental health section of the HSE. It is unclear, however, how many do so. Given the changes taking place in the environment, it is something to which people should give more consideration.
The various types of infections that have arisen are more likely to affect those with the weakest immune systems. I welcome the substantial funding that has been allocated in recent years. This level of funding is essential. The figure allocated under the national development plan is €850 million. Is there are any possibility that the provision of this funding could be brought forward? This is vital not only in the interest of public health but also with a view to meeting EU requirements.
The tendering process for group water and sewerage schemes may allow for some economies of scale through the provision of group contracts. Various types of contracts are being granted and I urge that efforts be made to ensure the schemes can be implemented as quickly as possible.
Will the Minister of State update the House on the roll-out of septic tank effluent drainage, STED, systems. I seek an update on the pilot scheme in our county. I see the departmental officials are seeking out that information. The more efficient and high-quality the systems of water supply and sewerage, the greater the benefit for us into the future. We must examine how waste water collection and treatment is managed in other countries. The treatments employed in the Nordic countries, for instance, are especially interesting.
The HSE tests water quality in public group water schemes annually. There is a case for an increased frequency of testing, especially where there is a track record of contamination. In such instances, testing should be repeated over a period until there can be confidence that the water is of adequate purity.
The EU directive on drinking water governs our position in this area. This directive established strict guidelines for the maximum level of contaminants allowed in a water supply. However, not all these contaminants are monitored regularly. I understand testing is carried out for the presence of eight to 14 of them. I am concerned that the presence of other contaminants may be going undetected. Are there any plans to update the testing system?
We have seen from events in Galway and Ennis that water contamination has a major impact. It is awful for people to have to manage without water. Contamination of the water supply also has a significant impact on rural tourism. The Government is committed to the promotion of rural tourism, although as spokesperson on tourism, I have particular concerns about spatial and regional development.
I compliment John Concannon on his co-ordination of the campaign to revive tourism in Galway in light of the water supply contamination there. Despite his efforts, however, the impact of the contamination was massive. The volume of visitors declined and, in many instances, hotels and other tourism-dependent businesses did everything, including offering cost prices, to attract visitors and protect their revenue streams. It is crucial that the investment is made to ensure our water systems are adequately maintained because the knock-on effects of any failings are serious.
Businesses are reacting to the incidence of water contamination. In Galway and Ennis, for example, many businesses have invested in filtration systems because of their lack of confidence in the steady provision of a clean water supply. It is unfortunate that they felt obliged to do so. Will the Government give consideration to some type of grant aid for the installation of such filtration systems, which can be expensive?
When work is carried out under the water programme, it is important an emphasis is placed on protection at source. Upgrading the schemes is essential but, in the process, it is important to ensure there is adequate source protection.
I welcome the water services national training programme. It is essential. I am concerned about the lack of joined-up thinking within departments in local authorities, as water schemes are struggling in some cases while there is a large volume of planning applications in some zones. In the village of Newport in my own constituency planning applications are going ahead despite the required water quality level not being met. Large developments are nonetheless being given planning permission, despite the authority acknowledging there is no solution to the problem. That is a mystery to me.
Previous speakers have raised the matter of river pollution. I was fortunate enough to be born only yards away from Lough Derg, one of the most beautiful places in the country, which is very close to my heart. It is one of the most beautiful places on the River Shannon. Not many people associate it with Tipperary, which is an unfortunate failure from a tourism perspective. I have issues with that also.
The level of pollution and its visibility are different. There is a level of pollution on Lough Derg which is unacceptable, and I have had experience of two dogs dying after drinking water from the lake. The visual effect of the pollution on Lough Derg is a concern and clearly does nothing for tourism promotion.
This is a timely debate, especially considering the recent announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the largest ever allocation of funding in terms of water services. That announcement has been added to as a result of yesterday's budget. It is important to note the focus the Minister for Finance gave to water services in his Budget Statement, which itself was an innovation. That indicates, from a Government perspective, that the matter of water quality is of the highest political importance.
The difficulty we have experienced with deteriorating water quality across the country, not just in rural communities but in major urban centres, has been much debated and still requires a large-scale co-ordinated response. There are continuing difficulties with cryptosporidium in the water supply of Galway city and surrounding areas. Ongoing problems still have not been solved in Ennis and many Members in the House would be familiar with difficulties regarding water supply and quality in many parts of the country. The reason behind this is that we have allowed water to be resourced that could be abused, not only as a receptacle for waste products but also in terms of compromising use as a source of drinking water supplies.
The most recent EPA quality of water report shows a third of the rivers in the country used for drinking water supplies are polluted. That serves as a wake-up call. It is one of the reasons the Minister responded immediately in terms of changing the regulations for the monitoring of the quality of water systems, giving the Environmental Protection Agency a prime role in the matter from hereon.
Such action cleared up much of the confusion existing in the past regarding who would take responsibility for particular waterways, which left cases being passed from pillar to post, particularly where the waterway was a boundary between two local authorities. There is now a sense of clarity in that area.
This debate is concerned especially with drinking water supplies. The provision of an infrastructure for water supplies and a waste water infrastructure is something that we have historically left for local communities, with a minimum amount of support from local authorities, to bring about themselves.
I once worked as a community development officer with Muintir na Tíre and I noticed the confluence of membership of people in community councils and local group water schemes, a scenario still prevalent throughout the country. It must be acknowledged that group water schemes brought about an infrastructure that the State, either at local government level or central Government level, lacked the full means to bring about. It was the marriage of local community voluntary effort and the willingness of such people to be involved at a management and supervision level that provided any drinking water service at all to most rural communities.
This was a feat in itself but keeping the schemes going has also been something of an achievement. Currently, the level of pollution and contamination from outside sources must bring us to question the economies of scale that exist with many individual group water schemes. Is the existing method for providing water in rural communities the best way of getting the job done?
There is no doubt the democratic infrastructure which exists in group water schemes should be maintained and local people should have the ultimate say in knowing from where their water is coming, how it is being distributed and whether it is of the best quality. There is a greater role for local authorities and Government, as well as State agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Senator Kelly mentioned that many rural households derive their water supply from having access to individual wells. For many people this is deemed to be the cleanest source available, but even that idea has come under threat from pollution from outside sources, particularly with regard to ground water.
The legislation places all the onus regarding supply and quality of this type of water source on the people with individual wells but there is a need to reconsider legislation and oblige the testing of such water in households on a regular basis. This would ensure people living in or visiting such households would be exposed to the cleanest possible water supply at every opportunity.
For rural communities there is a special emphasis on having the cleanest water possible. This morning we debated farmers' market and locally-produced food, both of which depend on the food grown in rural communities having access to clean water supplies. It is important that we have these two debates today as they say much about the future of rural Ireland.
There is also a need for sustainable planning in rural Ireland. I will not go into the wider debate of what is good and what is not, but there are reasons for rural communities being diverse in terms of where households are located and where people wish to build houses in future. The consequence is that it is difficult to put in place a sustainable network of both water supply and waste water treatment. We must be conscious of this idea in entering the debate of how and where we build houses in rural Ireland. Not only is it difficult to provide the most efficient infrastructure but there is an added cost in doing so.
I hope organisations such as An Taisce and the Irish Rural Dwellers Association will take those points into account. We are concerned here with the essential elements of life. Water should be clean and plentiful as we are one of the more fertile countries in the world, but it is not. The reasons behind this come from how we structure our society, allowing elements of pollution to dominate.
We must welcome the initiatives put in place over the last months in response to the most recent EPA report and we should strive to not only meet the lowest common standards we are obliged to under European Union directives, but seek to achieve the highest possible standards. We can use that as a mark of quality with regard to the food we produce, the communities we create and in trying to ensure the problems existing now will not exist into the future because of a raising of the bar.
Despite the increase in funding announced in yesterday's budget and the recent funding programme by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, this area will need sustained and increased funding if public confidence and the necessary infrastructure is to be created.
I agree with Senator Boyle that this is a timely debate. As the House knows, Galway has become synonymous nationally with serious water difficulties which are ongoing. We are now on our fifth boil water notice. Clarinbridge, which is at my back door, has had a boil water notice for approximately four weeks and Roundstone in Connemara has one. Prior to that for six or seven months, as Members know, we had a boil water notice in Galway city and the Oranmore electoral area affecting 90,000 people and causing considerable hardship. More than 200 people became quite ill and some vulnerable groups such as babies and older people could have died of cryptosporidium.
Senator Boyle spoke about the need to consider new developments and provide adequate water and sewerage schemes, which builds on the point made by Senator O'Reilly about the need for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to revisit the capping of grant aid at €10,000 per house for water and sewerage services if we are serious about clean drinking water.
No more than the rest of the nation, we in Galway have come to take water quality quite seriously as a critical public health issue. County Galway has 600 group water schemes. My research into the rural water programme in Galway has revealed the following. The rural water programme that comes from private sources is going well. This is the expressed view of Galway County Council which finds it easier to work with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to get funding, initiate works and reach a satisfactory conclusion where private sources are involved, largely because there are fewer steps in the process to get work done. This is important feedback given where the difficulties lie.
Of the 600 group water schemes, however, more than 160 are dependent on public water supplies. Herein lies the difficulty. The public water supplies are experiencing serious difficulties with water pollution and contamination leading to people becoming ill as a result. To address this issue we need urgent funding for the upgrade of capital works for the public supply of water and sewerage schemes. In yesterday's budget for the nation the Minister allocated €471 million. For Galway alone we need more than one tenth of that for this year. I met the director of services this week to discuss this point. He said he needed €5 million immediately for 20 vulnerable group schemes. By that I know he is suggesting we are in serious danger of people in those areas becoming seriously ill again.
I wish to return to the issue of private sources and what is needed in that regard to improve water quality. Regarding private wells, we need to introduce chemical treatment, filtration or disinfection using either ultraviolet light or chlorination to eliminate all the bugs in the water, including e.coli, coliform and cryptosporidium. This is an important public health requirement which means drinking water will be 100% safe. Regarding the public water supplies where we have major difficulties in Galway, and no doubt this is also relevant nationally, all of my research has shown that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government can be as successful with the public water supplies as it has been with the group water schemes if it follows a similar approach. The overall investment needed in County Galway from now until 2012 is €494 million, which is more than has been allocated to the whole country for this year, although it is a five-year programme in the case of County Galway.
The director of services informed me he needs €5 million urgently for work on 20 vulnerable schemes, including Clarinbridge, Williamstown, Monivea and Carraroe, to solve immediate public health issues with existing supplies. Reading between the lines, he is suggesting more areas are at risk of illness as a result of water pollution and contamination. I have put this on the record of the House and I ask that it be addressed for the sake of public health in Galway. I am very pleased the Minister of State and his officials are present to listen to this.
The process of having schemes approved and funded needs to be made easier because the existing process is too long and cumbersome. Does the Minister of State realise there are 70 steps between the initiation of a scheme for capital works and the work starting locally? This is ridiculous. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has too many convoluted requirements. Too many written submissions and approvals are needed. Too many reports must to be sent between the local authority and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The Minister of State should ask the people in Kinvara, Clarinbridge or Athenry. Athenry's temporary sewerage scheme is so inadequate that last year it was necessary to release the sewage into the Clarin river resulting in a major fish kill. That has now come down the river resulting in a boil water notice in Clarinbridge. The water is unsafe.
Insufficient local discretion is given to local authorities to allow them to proceed. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should trust the local authorities to know what is needed and provide them with a block grant. A pilot could be carried out in Galway to see how we do. It is very easy to evaluate its effectiveness.
Arising from the EU water directive, businesses and farmers pay through the use of metres. The difficulty, however, is who funds the domestic element. County Galway would be €1 million short and needs the extra money from the local government fund. Unless the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is forthcoming with adequate funding, money will need to be raised locally for schemes. This will be met with contempt as rates are always resisted and it is not a reliable way to raise adequate money for something as critical as water.
We need to simplify the process of approving schemes for capital works by having fewer steps. Adequate funding needs to be allocated so that local authorities are not left short. More discretion should be given to local authorities which know where the weaknesses are. The Department should provide an annual block grant to all local authorities to match their population size and needs. Galway should be used as a pilot for the nation. The Department should provide us with €30 million, which is just half of what we need in 2008, and then evaluate how we do. I will lay a wager with the Minister of State that he will find great success if the Department trusts local authorities with this approach.
As it stands, the Department's commitment to water supply and quality needs to be seriously questioned given the unprecedented wealth of recent years. It is time for a proper, targeted investment programme for public water in Galway. This is the Minister of State's chance and I would like him to convey it to the real Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to give real leadership on water and its importance for public health.
I am grateful to the Senators who outlined their views on this important issue. Senator O'Reilly said that while the theme for the discussion is the rural water services programme, there are a number of other areas in the general water services programme that are of concern. While they do not come under my area of responsibility, I will respond to as many of them as I can.
Senator O'Reilly referred to the €10,000 cap for services. As the Senator outlined it, I had the impression that it was a cap on combined water and sewerage if they arose in the same place. I understand that in general terms it applies to sewerage schemes and it has created some difficulty for local authorities. It is well to remember the background.
Undoubtedly it is. The distinction I was drawing is that it applies as a cap for waste water treatment for sewerage schemes. It creates some concerns in local authorities at management and local authority member levels. Initially the water services investment programme was directed mainly at major urban centres of population. A large proportion of that work has now been completed and most of the costs associated with this work have been dealt with.
The local authorities have considerable funding at their disposal but a significant variation in funding from the development funds exists between local authorities arising from the significant level of development. This fund was initiated with a view to giving the local authorities some funding to put towards the cost of these schemes. At this stage it has moved on to smaller towns and villages. Some of the difficulties which Senators Reilly and Healy Eames and others mentioned relates to these relatively small centres of population where the number of houses is very limited and this grant is paid only for a domestic supply and not for commercial premises. This creates a particular difficulty in areas where there are fairly small tourism-related facilities which are not big commercial entities but nevertheless are considered as commercial premises. Currently every centre of population with 1,000 people or more is included in the programme, as are a few with smaller numbers than that. I am confident the next review of the system will, to some extent and hopefully to a large extent, address the concerns which Senator Reilly expressed.
It is reasonable to state that it would not be possible to have a completely open cheque book for addressing these schemes. There must be a sensible attitude of addressing the areas at highest risk first.
The areas with a population of 1,000 or more are all included in the current programme.
In the event that the EPA, in conjunction with the local authority, determines that a particular area not in the current scheme has a significant problem, there is a financial provision which can be drawn down in consultation with the EPA, the Department and the local authority to address very specific difficulties in those kinds of areas.
Those difficulties can be partially addressed at source protection which is very important, more particularly for the areas being dealt with specifically today, the group water scheme areas and schemes in areas of much higher population, as referred to by Senator Healy Eames when she spoke about Galway and the initial cryptospiridium problem and the subsequent e.coli contamination. I also refer to Ennis which has had serious difficulties in that regard. These difficulties are gradually being addressed and the Department is confident they will be addressed successfully.
The Department and the EPA are currently examining the latest drinking water quality results with a view to cataloguing those supplies at greatest risk from cryptospiridium and also supplies subject to continuing e.coli or other chemical excesses. This analysis is expected to be completed by the middle of next year at the latest, hopefully a little sooner. This will inform decisions on the programme from then on. The contingency fund will be directed at those places.
To return to the topic we ought to have been discussing, the group water schemes, there is provision at this stage to address the principal outstanding schemes, some of which are in County Galway and some in County Mayo and a few others around the country. The design, build and operate process which has been applied to them is one that has shown a commendable level of success, although it is also fair to say there have been teething problems in some of the areas with the design, build and operate system for group water schemes. Senator Reilly will be familiar with some difficulties which have arisen in his own area.
The new system is being operated in the context of the huge voluntary input by the local people since the 1960s and 1970s when they were the pioneers of the provision of this kind of infrastructure that enabled development both of agriculture and of housing in their local areas. These voluntary schemes are now at the stage where they need a level of support. The Department, in partnership with the rural organisations such as the federation, has been proactive in addressing these problems. We realise there are areas where the very new model, whatever about design and build, is largely out of the hands of the people in the local community but we endeavour to address problems as speedily and as successfully as possible. I realise some of those difficulties exist and I am grateful to Senators for drawing our attention to them. I invite Senators to draw the attention of the Department to any difficulties and we will ensure the process of co-operation is brought to bear directly on those issues as this is the way to address them successfully.
I acknowledge the issue of the cap is creating some difficulty. It is intended to review this system over a period when the local authorities have successfully invested all the moneys from development funds and a large proportion of their wastewater treatment issues have been dealt with. It will then be possible to find a system to deal with the smaller population areas.
We are very confident that the pilot group water schemes project currently in operation in north Tipperary will throw up pointers and will inform the manner in which the new group sewerage scheme grants system will be operated. One of the difficulties associated with group sewerage schemes is that they are not as straightforward as the water schemes and difficult and technical issues arise about treatment, although there is no great difficulty about collection. These issues can subsequently pose problems for voluntary committees who have done extraordinarily well in the group water schemes sector but might be challenged in the group sewerage schemes sector.
I refer to a pilot area of concern, the source protection scheme in Senator Reilly's county of Cavan. I pay tribute to all those involved in this scheme for the level of co-operation from the farming community and from all participants. This is very encouraging for the future.
I hope I am not straying in terms of length or width.
I may continue a bit further then.
I wish to address some of the issues raised by Senators. I have dealt with the issues raised by Senator Reilly. Senator Kelly referred to agricultural pollution. I acknowledge there have been problems and that the attempts to deal with them in County Cavan have been extraordinarily successful, as has been the general response of the agricultural community. Senator Kelly also stressed the need for monitoring of supplies and this is gradually happening much more. Monitoring of the public schemes which are in the ownership of county councils is the responsibility of the EPA but monitoring of the group schemes is the responsibility of the county councils, with an oversight role for the EPA. As the monitoring is extended in frequency and spread, it is inevitable that other issues such as those outlined by Senator Healy Eames and others, will inevitably come to light. I have no doubt the Department will be able to deal with those issues and we will endeavour to face up to them.
Senator Kelly also referred to source protection and this is an issue which we need to address. Senator Boyle referred to the ongoing Ennis water supply issue and sadly, I am very familiar with the situation. The interim solution has been somewhat successful but the long-term solution is what is needed. He also mentioned the need for testing of single-house wells. For the moment, all the emphasis has been on the public supplies and on the group water schemes for more than 50 houses, as required under the directive. Fortunately, a substantial proportion of the other smaller group water schemes receive their water from the public supply and this is gradually being addressed in positive terms. However, quite a few small schemes consist of two or three houses connected to the one well or in the case referred to by Senator Boyle, one house. People in that situation are free to have their own water tested and many have done so. We would encourage people to take this action because it is only when one is aware of a problem that one can do something about it.
Despite quite negative findings relating to water quality, there are some strong positive indicators with regard to single rural wells. One suspects that improved agricultural practice may have resulted in wells being considerably more useable than had been the case heretofore.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney mentioned some issues that were of importance in her own locality, some of which I may have dealt with in that regard. The public supplies were a matter of some concern to her. At present, the most recent results indicate a compliance rate of almost 99%. However, some issues are still outstanding. Ultimately, as a number of Members noted, we will become aware of the difficulties through ongoing risk assessment and a fairly rigorous application of the monitoring process. This is of enormous importance because one only can begin to address such difficulties when one is aware of them. However, the record of the Department and the local authorities in addressing schemes has been extraordinarily good in a relatively short period. Ancillary issues arise in respect of source protection that, ultimately, are the fundamental issues to be addressed, if we are to do so successfully.
Senator Keaveney also raised a query regarding the prosecution of local authorities. Such a provision exists under the regulations introduced this year and the EPA is the body that is charged with that responsibility.