Wednesday 26 November 2014

How water for 1.5m families is wasted in leaks every day

Revealed: shocking neglect that will keep your water bill high

Paul Melia, Environment Correspondent

Published 15/05/2014 | 02:30

Irish Water contractors pictured removing water meters from the Ashbrook Estate in Togher, Cork city yesterday. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Irish Water contractors pictured removing water meters from the Ashbrook Estate in Togher, Cork city yesterday. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Environment Minister Phil Hogan introduced water charges

A STAGGERING 680 million litres of water is being lost across the network every day due to leaks in the system – enough to meet the needs of more than 1.5 million families.

The consequences of decades of under-investment are fully revealed for the first time in documents obtained by the Irish Independent under Freedom of Information laws. They show the enormous challenge facing Irish Water.

Repairing these leaking pipes and upgrading drinking and waste water-treatment plants means that householders will be forced to pay high water bills for at least the next decade.

The 'average' bill of €240 per family per year will remain at this level for the foreseeable future but could increase if additional spending is required.

Irish Water believes it may have to spend up to €20bn over the coming decades to meet EU water-quality standards and that it will take at least 15 years to reduce the leaks and bring our system into line with best international practice.

The appalling state of our water network is outlined in service plans agreed between the country's 34 local authorities and the commercial semi-state company.

The plans identify the problems in each local authority area, highlighting the condition of treatment plants, the pipe network and other key elements of the system.

They show a lack of key personnel to identify and repair leaks, with some leaks taking more than a year to fix because there is no funding or staff available.

They also reveal:

* High leakage levels, or failure to comply with drinking water standards, have been identified in more than 1,000 plants or water distribution systems.

* Another 400 wastewater treatment plants are not operating to the desired standard.

* More than 25,000 leaks were identified in 2012, but many were not repaired.

* Routine maintenance is not being carried out due to a lack of staff.

* Major concerns around health and safety. In one case, a leaking roof is presenting a risk of "water on electrical equipment".

City and county managers have also voiced fears about a lack of funding to carry out day-to-day operations, including an inability to cope with major emergencies.

But Irish Water said that budgets had remained "largely" at 2013 levels and that money would be saved by introducing efficiencies.

The company plans to invest €1.77bn upgrading the network over the next three years, but admits that the amount of water being lost due to leaks and illegal connections to the network stands at 680 million litres a day.

This equates to 40pc of the total supply produced and amounts to almost 250 billion litres a year.

A family of four – two adults and two children – uses an average of 160,000 litres a year. The amount being lost equates to the usage of more than 1.5 million families.

Fixing the problem will take years, with at least €600m needed every year for the foreseeable future to make the "right kind of progress", an Irish Water spokeswoman said.

Investment

But she said that as services improved, plants became automated and efficiencies were introduced, the cost to the consumer would fall.

This is because the independent regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), is tasked with only allowing "reasonable" operational costs to be borne by customers.

It will set customers charges next August for a two-year period, after which prices will be set for five years.

"If you look at the other utility models, like gas, the operational costs have fallen. The reason bills haven't fallen is because international gas prices have risen," the Irish Water spokeswoman said.

"CER will drive costs down every regulatory price control period, every five years. They will seek to drive out inefficiencies and costs. The costs of providing water will be driven down by CER."

Low levels of investment in recent decades have contributed to the problems.

Sources in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that in many cases the lack of investment was an "accident waiting to happen".

Irish Water would be subject to regular audits to ensure that its work was up to standard.

There was a need to complete water safety plans, which would protect water sources and ensure that drinking water was safe to drink, one source said. In addition, wastewater treatment plants needed to be upgraded in order to meet EU standards.

"What's now going to happen is we have asked Irish Water, and they have agreed, to adopt the water safety plan approach," he said.

"It's about ensuring safe and secure drinking water and complying with 48 standards, but also checking if it's secure. Is there something out there can could affect the supply?

"That's about source protection, such as having fencing installed to keep cattle out, down to the reservoir which stores the water, to the chemicals used in the plant and the distribution system which brings water to the to the tap.

"We will be auditing Irish Water from that point of view."

Irish Independent

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