Saturday 17 August 2019

The big dry: Unprecedented 2018 weather revealed how vulnerable Ireland's water supply is - but what is being done to address it?

The big read: The unprecedented weather of 2018 put our creaking water network into sharp focus. Our Environment Editor talks to those affected and those tasked with finding a solution to our water crisis

Dairy farmer Shane O'Loughlin from Aughrim Co Wicklow at the resevoir tank leading from his spring. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Dairy farmer Shane O'Loughlin from Aughrim Co Wicklow at the resevoir tank leading from his spring. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Shane O'Loughlin is a dairy farmer from Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Every day he draws around 10,000 litres of water from a spring on his land, which provides drinking water for his 110-strong herd.

Last July, the spring ran dry. It didn't come back until November 8. It was the first time in living memory that it failed.

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"I'm the fourth or fifth generation here," he says. "The spring was set up years ago, and all the pipework was replaced around 10 years ago. There's a man in his 80s living on the farm, who started working here when he was 14, and he had never seen it run dry.

"In early July, I noticed a problem. Over about a week, things started to go slack. By mid-July, it was gone."

The farm had no back-up mains supply. While the well serving the family home continued to flow, Shane was forced to draw water from a stream on his land for months.

"Around two tankers a day kept me going, rising to four tankers a day, around 18,000 or 20,000 litres (in total). You'd try and get the first tanker filled before 6.30am. It would take around 45 minutes to fill one load, but at peak I needed four loads.

"At the worst of the drought, between milking, drawing water and cutting grass and bringing it to the cows, it was a nine-hour day before I did anything else.

"I continued to draw water, two loads a day, until November 8. I was surprised at how quickly the spring came back, it was full pelt. The financial cost was significant, but the time and labour cost was worse, and the stress of having to do it."

The unprecedented weather of 2018 has thrown the vulnerability of our ageing and creaking water network into sharp focus.

Storm Emma and the Beast from the East early in the year saw pipes burst in sub-zero temperatures and treatment plants struggle to keep up with demand. Restrictions affected 370,000 people.

And while most welcomed the glorious summer sunshine, it resulted in widespread restrictions as demand spiked and sources ran dry.

Just how vulnerable is Ireland's water supply, especially in light of climate change which will place unprecedented stress on the sources we have? And what is being done to address the looming problem?

Irish Water abstracts 1.7 billion litres of water every day to serve more than four million people and an estimated 180,000 businesses. The group water sector supplies much of the remainder, although some families and businesses rely on private wells. Most water for agriculture comes from small, private sources.

Irish Water draws from 280 surface water sources, including rivers and lakes, which provide 80pc of total supply. In periods of drought, they can fail, but most recover fast.

There are 906 smaller sources including springs and boreholes which provide the remainder. These take longer to fail, but need more time to replenish.

We have a "phenomenal" number of sources, one industry expert says. Northern Ireland has just 24. We have over 1,000.

They range in scale from The Strand in Laois, which serves just three households, to the River Liffey, which provides 85pc of supply to Dublin and surrounding counties.

Some 40pc of the river's flow is abstracted every day, highlighting the enormous reliance placed on just one source. Dublin isn't an outlier. Cork largely relies on the Lee, Galway the Corrib and Limerick the Shannon. The biggest groundwater source in Laois supplies up to two million litres a day from just one borehole.

Ireland has lots of rain, but it doesn't fall where it's most needed. Much of the national population is located around Dublin, but apart from the Wicklow Mountains, most rain falls on the west coast in counties including Cork, Kerry, Galway and Donegal.

Ireland is expected to get more rainfall overall as climate change takes hold, but summers are likely to be drier. That raises the prospects of water shortages unless we plan ahead.

That said, droughts are not a new phenomena. An analysis of historical records conducted by a team including Dr Conor Murphy from Maynooth University found that Ireland was subject to persistent droughts in the 1800s, 1820s, 1850s, 1880s, 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and 1970s.

1995 saw a prolonged drought in the midlands and in the summer of 2013, at least 10 local authorities restricted supplies.

But the last 40 years, researchers noted, had been unusual due to the absence of persistent drought events. Much of our infrastructure has been built since then, meaning it is not designed to adapt to a changing climate.

There was no indication that 2018 would see anything other than a normal summer. Early in the year there were frequent storms with above-average rainfall recorded, leading to higher water levels in many areas.

Melting snow from Storm Emma helped maintain the saturated ground conditions into April, but by May, most Met Éireann weather stations were reporting below-average rainfall, with very little following into June.

As of June 27, the majority of the country was in drought, defined as 15 consecutive days with less than 0.2mm of rainfall. Rivers in Wicklow, Louth, Tipperary, Galway, Cork and Cavan were at or approaching record low levels.

Such was the extent of the severe drought that Irish Water warned there were likely to be "serious deficiencies" of water available.

Demand across the Greater Dublin water supply area, which takes in large parts of Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow, spiked at an average of 616 million litres a day in June compared with average demand of 553 million litres the same month one year previously.

"Large-scale outages are inevitable if demand is not reduced through voluntary reductions or restrictions in water usage," a technical report to the utility's board said, adding supply was "at risk… of imminent failure".

The picture was no better nationally. Of 790 drinking water treatment plants assessed in late July, just 18 - 2pc - were operating normally. The rest were enduring drought conditions.

In addition, the soil moisture deficit - essentially the amount of water in the soil compared with what it can hold - ranged from -45mm to -88mm. This meant at least this volume of rain was needed before water would soak through and replenish the various drinking water sources on which the citizens of the State rely.

Rising demand

Restrictions were introduced in early July which were not fully lifted until late September. In the interim, Irish Water and group water schemes struggled to keep up with demand which shot up by some 40pc on some private schemes.

The utility was forced to find new sources in Kilkenny and Laois, and transport water for 35,000 people every day in Kilkenny, Limerick, Wicklow, Cork, Waterford, Carlow, Tipperary and Clare because treatment plants could not meet local demand.

One small group water scheme in Cavan, serving 25 homes, was forced to spend €150 a day bringing in water by tanker.

Denis Drennan, a farmer at Maddoxtown in Kilkenny and chair of the ICMSA (Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association) Farm and Rural Affairs Committee, is highly critical of the cut-offs.

"Irish Water implemented a one-size-fits-all when they cut water off at night. If you have a couple of hundred cattle drinking a couple of hundred litres of water each, it's a problem," he says.

"The main drinking period for a cow is after evening milking. Even if it does come back at 7am, there's an animal welfare issue. Most of our members have a private water supply because they can't rely on Irish Water."

Four months after restrictions were lifted, parts of the system remain on a knife-edge. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that while most sources are back to normal, some remain vulnerable.

The River Deel, which serves families in Limerick, remains at low levels. The main source for Mullingar, Lough Owel; Lough Bane, which supplies Kells and Oldcastle, and Lough Lene which supplies Castlepollard, are all hovering near historic lows.

"During 2018, Lough Owel and Lough Bane reached their lowest levels in over 30 years and Lough Lene was also very low," a spokesman said. "Of concern is that water levels in these lakes have not recovered much since the summer.

"The net effect of this may be seen during the summer of 2019 if we get another dry summer, unless there is a significant amount of rain in the intervening period."

Irish Water says a new supply is needed for Dublin and the midlands, where 330 million litres a day will be abstracted from the River Shannon at the Parteen Basin, before being piped 170km to Dublin with connections along the way.

There is opposition to the €1.3bn plan, permission for which is expected to be sought for this year, but the utility insists it's not just for Dublin.

Tipperary has eight sources providing eight million litres which are "inadequate, shallow" and "vulnerable". Offaly imports water from neighbouring counties, and a "vulnerable" source serves Edenderry. Laois has nine different sources, most of which should be retired, while Meath has "limited" and "vulnerable" groundwater sources. All these counties would benefit from the project.

This week it emerged that the Lough Talt supply in Sligo will have to be abandoned due to its impact on the local eco-system. It serves 13,000 and will be replaced with a new source from Lough Conn, 40km away.

Dublin's supply is a serious worry, especially in light of the fact that the system has little headroom or spare capacity and its population is growing.

Some 1.6 million people rely on the Poulaphouca reservoir in the Wicklow Mountains. It must release water to maintain river flows and protect the environment, and serve the two biggest treatment plants in the country: Leixlip which produces 205 million litres a day and Ballymore Eustace which produces 308 million.

If storage levels dip below 100 days, Irish Water goes on "high alert", water resource planner with the utility, Angela Ryan, says.

"Over the summer, it would have fallen below that line," she says.

The company says it manages supplies through pressure reductions and other network controls, and will shortly begin a public consultation on a National Water Resources Plan, designed to future-proof the network.

It will mean some sources will have to be abandoned, Ryan says.

"For every water supply across the country, we're looking at how sustainable those sources are. We're looking at population growth, to try and ensure we have enough supply to meet demand.

"The options can be to find new supplies and to reduce leakage. We also have to look at how we all use less water.

"We will have to find new sources. In some places, we have four or five small treatment plants, all abstracting from tiny sources. We'll come up with a huge amount of problems, and will have to prioritise those problems over a 25-year timeframe, to get Ireland moving to a sustainable and resilient supply."

But should we build more reservoirs, like Poulaphouca, as a back-up?

"Poulaphouca is a very good source because you can store water in the wet period of the year. But it was an enormous engineering feat which would have involved flooding entire valleys.

"This is not something which can be delivered in a very short space of time. We also have to look at environmental impact, and projects like Poulaphouca might not even be possible (today). "But it's a reservoir on a river, and a very effective water supply site. We have Inniscarra on the Lee in Cork which is similar, and which provides the majority of drinking water for Cork City. Extraction from Parteen (the Shannon scheme) is almost exactly like Poulaphouca, in that the river and dam are in place."

The issues are mirrored in the group water sector, which serves around 6pc of the population.

Jean Rosney from the National Federation of Group Water Schemes says 22 schemes reported issues at the height of the summer, with 10 having to draw from alternative sources. "The increase in demand put huge pressure on the treatment plants and some were operating 24 hours a day," she says.

"In terms of future planning, schemes are now looking at additional and back-up sources and installing generators at treatment plants and pump houses. Schemes are ramping up their leakage control measures to ensure there is sufficient capacity for future situations. I'd say some are looking at new sources."

The State faces the challenge of developing and upgrading treatment plants and systems which can operate into the future as climate change takes hold, while abstracting no more water than absolutely necessary.

Angela Ryan says Irish Water does not plan to draw more than 1.7 billion litres a day at any point in the future - even taking into account of population growth.

Reducing leaking, upgrading the network, finding more sustainable supplies and reducing consumption will be key to a resilient supply.

"All the assets we are designing and building, we are testing them against climate change standards," she says. "It will need better utilising of reservoir and groundwater sources."

But in the meantime, Shane O'Loughlin worries about the future. The father-of-three, who is also chair of the ICMSA Farm Business Committee, is hoping for rain.

"I'm very worried about this summer coming. We had a wet December, probably six weeks of normal weather, but the ground has never got wet. We could get a wash-out spring, but it's going to take a hell of a good year to put last year behind us.

"People are talking about climate change coming but for farmers, it's here. The weather has been unbelievable in the last year. There's strong evidence to say it's already here. Things are on their head."

Paul Melia is the Irish Independent's Environment Editor

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