Of course farmers, businesses, schools, banks and other institutions are already paying water charges. The same applies to both businesses and domestic users on group water schemes. But all other domestic water users are entitled to free water since the Fine Gael/Labour government got rid of domestic water rates in 1997.
The vast majority of farms source their domestic and farm water supply from their own wells, but this is far from being free water. The recession has brought down the cost of well drilling but the quotes still range from about €6 to €10 a foot for the drilling plus a liner cost of up to €4 a foot. €1,000 will get you down to about 100 feet, plus another €1,000 should get you fixed up with a submersible pump plus pressurised vessel, etc, that is needed on the surface. Vat will be charged on top of these fees, but this is recoverable. There is also the ongoing cost of electricity and pump maintenance (plus the threat of freeze-ups and thieves) for those using their own well water.
Interestingly, a major part of the Irish well-drillers' business now comes from the installation of geothermal central heating systems in new houses. This involves drilling to depths of 500 to 800ft.
The well-drilling costs look competitive when compared with the charges being levied on some dairy farmers availing of public water supplies. Between the cost of a meter (or meters) and the levy on volume of water used, annual fees of €6,000 per farm are not unusual, according to Pat Farrell of the IFA industrial committee.
With each county council doing its own thing regarding water policy and charges, one could expect variation across the nation. But the extent of this variation is hard to understand. There can be over 100pc variation in the cost of road opening to make a connection, in the cost of making a connection, in the standing charge for the metering and in the cost of the volume of water used.
Cavan County Council seems to be one of the lower-cost operators, quoting a flat rate charge of €380 per farm or a metered charge of €3.17 per 1,000 gallons used. The IFA is particularly critical of the ongoing charge for meters. For meters that can be purchased outright off the shelf for less than €100, councils charge a rental of €100 (or even a lot more) per year. Is this a racket? The IFA thinks so.
The move away from allowing livestock access to streams and rivers plus the switch to paddock grazing has brought a lot of business to manufacturers of drinking troughs, water pipes and plumbing fittings. These drinking troughs need supervision and maintenance and cleaning. They can leak. Last winter many broke up during the freeze. The water in them can become dirty and soiled. Some herdowners claim that keeping the water in troughs clean is an important part of keeping a farm free of TB.
Recently I have come across the subject of water ionisation. The process comes from the Far East with some remarkable claims. By passing the water through an ioniser, you can change it from a neutral pH of 7 either towards an alkaline or acid. The claim for the alkaline ionised product is that it is an antioxidant drinking water with all the benefits this brings (including removal of cancer causing free radicals).
The claim for the acidic ionised product is that it enhances water's solvent and cleaning action, thus reducing the need for detergents.
Personally, I would dearly like to see less detergents being used in milking parlours. Over the years I have seen too many Irish dairy farmers hit with cancer of the lymph glands and my fear is that the dairy detergents are involved.
If push comes to shove, the vast majority of Irish farmers can expect to find water even if they are drilling on a rocky outcrop. Spare a thought for the parts of the world where the water table is disappearing, or where salinisation of the soil is occurring, often from constant irrigation.
In Western Australia there is so much salt in the ground water that drilling a well is out of the question. In the case of a relative who owns a 11,000 acre farm in Mount Barker (200 miles south of Perth) which carries 6,000 ewes and about 1,000 suckler cows. All domestic water is rain collected as roof run-off.
Water for the livestock is stored in a large field dams.
At least this is one water issue that is unlikely to happen in Ireland.