Seanad debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Water Quality

9:30 am

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this important Commencement matter. It is my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister of State on his new role. We in County Tipperary call him, "the Tipperary Minister", because a region of ours is in his constituency. I know from mutual friends we have in Newport and Birdhill that they are very proud of the Minister of State's elevation and he is regarded as an incredible worker in that area.

I have brought up Irish Water numerous times with regard to the moving away of water services from local authorities to Irish Water. Before I delve into the Clonmel and business issues, it is important to acknowledge the work that has been done in the past number of months in the Minister of State's Department and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in particular, with the publication of the framework for the future delivery of water services last June. The transformation team of Irish Water has played a key role in building up relationships between staff in local authorities and Irish Water. I think the team has from now until 2026 to put a plan in place for staff moving and what choices and options they have in moving. By all accounts, from staff I have spoken to in water services, that relationship has improved considerably and they are certainly more engaged and positive about the move.

I will touch on the operational side of things today. Councillors John FitzGerald and Michael Murphy in Clonmel and I face a constant challenge with water services in the area in terms of outages. I am conscious it happened yesterday to a large area of the rural side of Clonmel. In fairness to Irish Water, it has plans in place, some of which will be completed this year, to improve the operational facilities of the plants in Clonmel.

One of the issues we have is a real challenge from a business perspective. Three plants are running in Clonmel. A simplistic way of looking at it is that Poulavanogue manages the east side of Clonmel town centre on the Mountain Road; Glenary covers the west side and Monroe covers everything north of the Clonmel bypass. The future development of Irish Water essentially means that it is changing things around, whereby the Glenary plant will cover Mountain Road and the town centre and Monroe will come in towards the town centre. The difficulty I and an awful lot of other people in Clonmel have with this concerns the quality of the water. Poulavanogue is a plant on top of the Comeragh Mountains from which water comes right down into the town. The quality of the water is second to none. It is top class.

I know the measure to be brought in is temporary, but the challenge we face going forward is that the plant which will replace Poulavanogue for a short period, in Monroe, has very poor-quality water. That is fine if one is a domestic user. One can put in filters and improve the hard water. There is no problem there but, from a business perspective, this has a real impact. If a restaurant or a coffee shop, in particular, needs good quality water going into machines, it will cost considerable money to put systems in place to be able to get that top-quality water and it will cost an awful lot of money to maintain them.Business people are afraid. We have a perfectly good plant that produces top-quality water, which comes from the Comeragh Mountains down into the town. There are many towns across the country that would want this type of water to be coming in from a source on a mountain right beside the town. It is free water. In my view, we are not maximising that top-quality water.

Water supply is a massive issue for businesses. I am not sure all of the business operators in Clonmel realise the impact that this could have for the next number of years. I am interested in hearing the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his congratulatory comments and I thank him for raising this very important issue.

The policy paper on water sector transformation, as published in 2021, set out the Government's vision for the development of water services in Ireland based on the full integration of water services under Uisce Éireann as a single national water services authority in public ownership. The objective is to deliver a world-class public water services authority that meets customer needs, operates in line with best practice, represents value for money and facilitates economic development in urban and rural locations.

The engagement with unions on a framework for future delivery of water services was concluded successfully at the Workplace Relations Commission last June. The framework now enables Uisce Éireann to work in conjunction with local authorities to complete the full integration of public water services into its own organisational structure over a four-year period from 2023 to 2026. Staff are hugely important in that integration. The preparations for the implementation of the framework are progressing well.

The Senator mentioned a specific public water supply in Poulavanogue and mentioned that his colleagues, councillors John Fitzgerald and Michael Murphy are working with him on this particular issue. I will give the up-to-date position. The Clonmel Poulavanogue public water supply is currently on the EPA's remedial action list for turbidity and cryptosporidium. It is a river stream source and the treatment consists of slow sand filters and chlorine disinfection. Due to the site location infrastructure, it is not possible to undertake the required upgrades to ensure treatment of the water treatment plant addresses the cryptosporidium risk. Prior to the installation of an automatic shutdown on the raw water in 2020, we had regular cryptosporidium detections. Treatment of the existing Poulavanogue sources was also ruled out on the basis that the sources do not have an adequate yield to meet the current demands as demonstrated during recent dry weather events and thus, if retained, would result in a risk of interruptions to supply for parts of Clonmel town. A new source of supply is required to ensure Uisce Éireann can meet the needs of existing customers while allowing for growth in the area.

The draft national water resources plan for the south east will set out the long-term strategy for Clonmel town and a number of smaller local supplies. In the short term, an interim plan to increase the abstraction at the existing Monroe well-field is proposed to deal with the needs of Clonmel town for the next ten or more years. The timeline for the completion of this project is 2026. The Mountain Road pipeline project, which commenced earlier this year, will address the risk of boil water notices and regular outages at the Poulavanogue water treatment plan.

Earlier this year, Uisce Éireann assumed responsibility for the direct recruitment of water services staff. A comprehensive engagement exercise is under way to communicate the framework details directly to existing staff and ensure all local authority water services workers fully understand the options available to them. One-to-one briefings will be made available to staff in the coming weeks. It is important to note that any transfer of staff to become permanent employees of Uisce Éireann will be on an entirely voluntary basis. The Government is, therefore, planning for the future in an orderly and well-managed way that ensures there will be no adverse impacts on the delivery of services to the business and domestic customers of Uisce Éireann. Ultimately the reforms that are under way, coupled with the ongoing increased levels of investment year on year in our water services, will ensure that citizens and businesses will enjoy a world-class water services system that they rightly expect and deserve, and of which we can all hope to be justifiably proud.

I will provide Senators with my full text but I wanted to deal with the Poulavanogue issue.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and appreciate his update on Poulavanogue. The problem is the quality of water from the Monroe source, which will now be used instead of Poulavanogue for a period. Monroe was established in the 1990s as a temporary measure and now it looks like it will exist for another ten years. The quality of water that comes from Monroe, which is going to service the town of Clonmel, and the businesses in particular, is not up to scratch. Businesses will be caught with an expense through no fault of their own because the quality of water is not what it should be.

The Minister of State mentioned the framework. I acknowledge that a long-term strategy is being put in place by Irish Water in respect of Clonmel. As I have said on numerous occasions in this Chamber, the relationship between local representatives and Uisce Éireann needs to improve and especially at local authority level. On this issue, I would appreciate if there could be engagement with myself, and councillors John Fitzgerald and Michael Murphy, on the long-term strategy for Clonmel in terms of what is best for the town. This should happen before the strategy is published. Such engagement is essential so that when we go out and the strategy is there, we can defend the decisions that have been made by Uisce Éireann and explain why the strategy is good for the town. It is very hard for us to do that if we do not have engagement beforehand. I ask the Minister of State to use his influence to give us an opportunity to discuss, with the operational team of Uisce Éireann, the long-term strategy going forward for the town of Clonmel and, in particular, for businesses.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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The Senator has made clear points. He understands the issues at hand in Clonmel. I understand that my Department and I will make direct contact with Uisce Éireann to ask its officials to engage directly with the Senator, and councillors John Fitzgerald and Michael Murphy in Clonmel, on this particular issue.

Ultimately, we all want to improve the quality of the water supply, which is what Uisce Éireann is all about. I undertake that I will contact Uisce Éireann and that a meeting will take place.