Friday 22 September 2017

People now accept need for Irish Water to invest in new pipes, says boss

Irish Water managing director Jerry Grant. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Irish Water managing director Jerry Grant. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Irish Water boss Jerry Grant says the public now accepts the need for a water utility to address decades of under-investment.

Around 10,000 people were left without water in Navan, Co Meath, yesterday after a mains pipe ruptured, the latest in a series of problems to hit the beleaguered network.

Mr Grant says the utility wants to spend up to €750m a year on upgrades, and that the key to the future would be the "boring stuff" of replacing ageing pipes and upgrading plants.

In an interview with the Irish Independent late last week, Mr Grant said the presence of old piping across the network was a "huge problem" which would take years to remedy.

He was speaking following the failure of an asbestos main which left more than 50,000 households and businesses without water in Drogheda last week. A similar type of pipe failed in Navan, and it would cost millions of euro every year to address long-standing issues.

He also said there appeared to be a growing recognition of the need for a national utility to drive investment and upgrades.

Asked about public perception of the utility, he said it was hard to assess.

"It's hard to gauge it," he said. "I have a sense there's greater recognition of the need for the utility. I sense there's a better understanding of the need for the utility and funding.

"I think the Joint Oireachtas Committee [on the Future Funding of Water Services] did a really good job. I think it forced a perspective on the issues - there's a problem, a huge need for investment, and an organisation capable of doing it."

The company has a long-term business plan, and much of the programme involved "boring" spend such as removing poorly performing plants and replacing pipes, which would not only improve the resilience of the network, but also help reduce operating costs.

He said the company was spending more on repairs than established water utilities due to the lack of "proper" investment over many years.

The network consists of some 63,000km of pipeline, of which around 10pc needs to be replaced. Asbestos piping, used until the 1980s, can become brittle over time and fail with catastrophic results. The mains in Navan has been identified as a priority for replacement, but it is not yet clear when this will happen.

"What has become apparent is that eventually the linings break down," Mr Grant said. "We have a huge problem with bursts on asbestos pipes, and they feature heavily on our replacement programme which is based on high burst frequency.

"The Germans have an average age of pipe of 50 years, which suggests a replacement rate of 2pc, and 1pc is a fairly high replacement rate. You'd get through a lot of your poor pipe at 1pc. You're looking at €200m a year for pipe replacement. We're spending about €70m a year now.

"This is the key to investment. It's not about a new [drinking water treatment] plant on the hill. The bulk of investment is the boring stuff. But if you take out your worst performing assets, you're reducing your operational costs.

"It goes back to the question of the consistency and certainty of funding. If you keep the funding going, you're keeping operational costs down. If you don't, you build up a backlog of repairs and your reactive repairs are costing more.

"That's where we're at. We're spending more money compared with a utility making proper investment."

The likely bill to upgrade the network is expected to reach €13.5bn over the next 20 years.

Irish Independent

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