13,000 households are facing two more years of being forced to boil their drinking water
Up to 13,000 households face the prospect of enduring further water restrictions for at least another two years, Irish Water has admitted.
A boil water notice was imposed on customers supplied by Lough Talt in Co Sligo on January 11 last, after the dangerous bug cryptosporidium was detected during routine testing.
It followed restrictions between February and November last year, and 140 failures of the supply to meet safety standards since 2004.
Planning permission has been sought for a temporary plant to supply water for up to 10 years, until a new source from Lough Conn some 40km away is developed. Head of asset management at Irish Water Sean Laffey said the utility hoped to secure planning permission in the coming months, but said it would take up to two years to build - meaning a safe supply would not be available until 2021.
Locals have expressed frustrated at the return of the boil water notice.
"It's a massive inconvenience," Kellie Cadman said. "Apart from the health and safety issues, there's extra hassle and upkeep of trying to keep clean water in the house.
"You never think you'll have to deal with it until it happens."
The affected areas include Tubbercurry and Ballymote and a rural hinterland which takes in several villages. A number of areas in Co Mayo are also affected.
The existing treatment plant is among 62 supplies nationally in need of urgent upgrading because they pose a health and safety risk. They provide water to almost 507,000 consumers and must be upgraded to ensure drinking water is safe.
Lough Talt does not provide adequate protection for cryptosporidium or THMs, which are chemicals formed during the disinfection process. The European Commission has opened a legal case against Ireland over the THM issue across the wider water network.
Of the 62 plants in need of upgrades, 45 have issues with THMs, the latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency says. Sixteen have issues with cryptosporidium, and eight have to address both concerns.
Permission for a new plant was given in 2009 but the project didn't proceed. A 2016 application from Irish Water was refused by the council and An Bord Pleanála because of concerns the scheme and continued abstraction of eight million litres of water a day from Lough Talt would impact on the Lough Hoe Bog Special Area of Conservation and River Moy SAC.
Last May, Irish Water again sought permission, asking that it be allowed to operate an upgraded plant for no more than 10 years, pending the development of a new scheme from Lough Conn which will take up to a decade to deliver. Once Lough Conn is in place, the Lough Talt plant will be decommissioned.
The utility said alternatives considered included providing water to homes through tankers, but as 121 a day would be required, it was not considered feasible. An upgrade is the only solution, pending a new source, it said.
The utility has suggested planning permission be granted under the IROPI process (Imperative Reasons of Overriding Public Interest) if concerns about the impact on the SAC remain.
"We're looking to develop a new source from Lough Conn and this is the first IROPI we've looked for," Mr Laffey said. "If Sligo takes a view this is an IROPI project, they have to take a case to the minister [for housing] who has to engage with the National Parks and Wildlife Service to ask about the impact of what we're proposing, and if the mitigation measures we're proposing are sufficient.
"There is a demonstrated impact on the environment (from the project). The IROPI system is there to strike a balance between the environment and humans."
Water has been drawn from Lough Talt since the 1950s, with abstraction considered to have a negative impact on the ecosystem. Abstraction rates would have to drop by 50pc for up to 95 days a year to avoid impacts during dry periods, but this would leave the population without supply.
The tiny 3mm Geyer's whorl snail (Vertigo geyeri) has also been affected, with the last sighting in 2007. Irish Water has proposed creating a special habitat and re-introducing the species.
"We're going to go back to a patch of ground where they were before and introduce, for want or a better word, a sprinkler system, drilling groundwater source and keeping the area constantly wet," Mr Laffey said.
"It is hoped this would help convince planners that all necessary steps are being taken to protect the SAC, with abstraction to completely stop within 10 years which would lead to water levels in the lake recovering, and removing the need for the special habitat."
In the meantime, local residents are likely to suffer further outages.