Infrastructure and construction report

Coming years ‘critical’ for water services

Fintan Towey, Assistant Secretary for Water at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, speaks with eolas on key reforms in Irish water management, including the establishment of Uisce Éireann as a standalone utility and the River Basin Management Plan 2022-2027.

Signed into law in December 2022, the Water Services Act provides for the separation of Irish Water from its parent company, Ervia, and for its reestablishment as a standalone water utility, renamed to its Irish form – Uisce Éireann – which was officially established on 1 January 2023. Towey explains that Irish Water had been originally established as part of Ervia for good reason, but the time has now come for water management to be undertaken by a standalone utility.

“Irish Water was established as a subsidiary of Ervia because of the need to urgently leverage the utility company expertise that was available in Ervia to advance the establishment of a new state company for a network industry,” he says, adding: “That approach worked, but the next set of challenges that needs to be tackled is best addressed by a public utility that has clear direct accountability for the stewardship of its business.

“The separation is in the best strategic interests for water services, and ultimately, for customers. The Water Services Act delivers on the 2020 Programme for Government commitment to bring Irish Water into the public ownership as a national standalone water utility. It provides that Irish Water will be known only as Uisce Éireann and outlines the character of Uisce Éireann as the national authority for water services.”

The step change in water management at state level comes in a context of everchanging regulation at the European level and the need to combat the effects that climate change is having and will have on water supplies, while also facilitating the development needs of a growing population. The establishment of Uisce Éireann can thus be understood as another step in a long strategy.

“We have experienced significant change over the last 10 years,” Towey says. “We are seeing the benefits of that change, but there is much more to do and our action in the coming years will be critical for the management of water services and water quality. To move forward, we need to meet the increased demands from population growth, urbanisation, a vibrant economy, and housing.

“We need to adapt to the impacts arising from climate change, meet new performance standards for water quality and customer service, and meet stringent environmental objectives for water catchments. Some of those challenges are quite daunting but they cannot be ignored. The cost of inaction and inertia is ultimately higher than the cost of stepping up to the plate and taking action.”

Much of that action has centred on the Government’s response to European regulation. The newly revised Drinking Water Directive, for example, will introduce requirements around access to drinking water, a new risk-based approach to drinking water management, strengthened chemical parameters, and monitoring of a watchlist of harmful substances. These improved regulations are expected to be published in early 2023 and will be “about protecting consumers, even if for most, the improvements will be largely invisible”.

The Water Environment (Abstractions and Associated Impoundments) Act 2022 has also ensured that “major water extractions are undertaken without damage to water body’s biodiversity or environment”, putting in place a new abstractions regime that will “update and put in place a modern and comprehensive process for authorising water abstractions for all uses, ensuring that water is used efficiently and that enough water is left for nature”.

“The Water Services Act delivers on the 2020 Programme for Government commitment to bring Irish Water into the public ownership as a national standalone water utility. It provides that Irish Water will be known only as Uisce Éireann and outlines the character of Uisce Éireann as the national authority for water services.”

Overall, the Act and the new regime will contribute to the protection of the water environment and to fulfilling obligations to control abstractions as required by the Water Framework Directive.

Another key plank of the Water Framework Directive is the requirement for EU member states to adopt river basin water management plans, which are renewed in six-year cycles and intended to be the primary tool through which the EU will arrest and reverse the decline in European water resources.

With half of Irish rivers and lakes beneath the required standard, the Government has consulted on its plan and will soon publish the River Basin Management Plan 2022-2027, which will “take into account the new water quality trends, the impact of climate change, and the need to protect, enhance, and restore our water catchments”.

“This is the final cycle leading up to 2027; the Directive’s target date for water bodies to achieve good ecological status. ‘Good’, in this case, relates to the second-best point on the five-point scale of ecological status contained within the Water Framework Directive,” Towey explains.

Firstly, there will be continued investment in Uisce Éireann and rural water services with regard to wastewater treatment. Secondly, there are also new measures for agriculture, notably an enhanced nitrates action programme supported by Ireland’s new CAP strategic plan, which was adopted by the Government. Thirdly, we will commit to water-sensitive siting of new forestry, the use of forestry as a mitigation measure, and the restructuring of our existing forests. Furthermore, there will be provision for restoring rivers through the first ever national programme of river barrier assessment, with removal and remediation where possible. In addition, we will promote nature-based rainwater management for urban areas. Finally, there is a €20 million EU integrated project on high status water bodies aimed at strengthening protection of those key water bodies.”

With €1.56 billion allocated to Uisce Éireann in Budget 2023, the Government is seeking to address regulatory and infrastructural challenges, including the investment in new rural wastewater networks, and facilitating the types of residential construction envisioned under Housing for All.

There is work to do for both the short and long term, as Towey concludes: “In public policy, there are two plans that matter. The first is the vision for the long term, the second is the plan for the next six to 12 months because that is what shows if there is a genuine commitment to that vision. The Water Division of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage works to protect, restore, and enhance our water resources, both surface and groundwater, to ensure the provision of efficient, resilient, and high-quality water services, and to ensure that our seas are clean, healthy, and used sustainably. We have work to do in all those areas.”

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