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How safe is your tap water? The precariousness of the water supply system in Ireland

Years of shortcomings, delays in planning, crumbling infrastructure, and leaking pipes have left the water supply in Ireland in a bad place. Dhai Almutairi investigates the ramifications of this.

Last May, the European Commission threatened to take legal proceedings against Ireland for a failure to tackle drinking water issues dating back over a decade. 

In recent years, the number of boil water notices issued by Irish Water has greatly increased. 

Chart, pie chart

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The percentage of the population affected by boil water notices in Ireland over the past five years

Between October and November 2019, two boil water notices were issued for consumers on the Leixlip public water supply. The first notice affected 615,000 consumers across Dublin, Kildare, and Meath, and the second notice affected 657,000 consumers.

The table shows the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) concerning trends of Boil Water Notices from 2017 to 2019.

Table

Description automatically generatedImage source: The Environmental Protection Agency  

Michelle Minihan, the senior inspector of drinking water at the EPA, spoke to TheCity.ie about the increase in water boil notices and the underlying causes for the delays in delivering critical improvements to the water treatment plan in Ireland. 

“These notices were put in place to protect public health as there was a risk of a breakthrough of Cryptosporidium from the filters at the Leixlip Water Treatment Plant,” she said.  

The notice was lifted shortly for these areas, but there are areas in Ireland with boil notices that have been still in place for over a year now. There are 27 properties in the Knockadoon water supply zone in Cork, with water boil notices issued on 31st June of last year that are still in place.  

“The boil water notice in place for 27 consumers of the Knockadoon public water supply is due to inadequate chlorine time for those consumers,” Minihan continued. “This means the water is not properly disinfected as it has not had the required contact time for the chlorine to adequately disinfect the water when it reaches the consumer taps for the affected properties.”

Irish Water plan to install ultraviolet disinfection for the affected areas and had briefed the EPA that the works are expected to be completed by the end of this year. Once the ultraviolet disinfection has been installed, Irish Water is planning to consult the HSE to agree on lifting the boil water notice. 

There are 864 sites in the National Disinfection programme, and Irish Water has completed works on 230 sites. However, due to delays in accessing key equipment and delays with contract mobilization, the programme’s completion date has been extended from June 2020 to 2022.

“The EPA is monitoring Irish Water’s progress in delivering this programme, including high-risk sites identified and prioritized during 2020,” said Minihan. “It is critical that Irish Water ensures the delivery of the disinfection programme is not delayed further.”

Between July and August of this year, Irish Water received many complaints from consumers relating to the water’s unusual taste and smell. Irish Water investigated the causes of these complaints and sent samples of drinking water to the UK for specialist testing.  Results confirmed the presence of methylisoborneol – a naturally occurring substance produced by algae in lakes and rivers. 

Irish Water informed consumers of the analysis and reported that the water remains safe to drink as the levels of methylisoborneol found in drinking water in parts of Kildare and Dublin have dropped significantly. 

Irish Water monitors the drinking water quality on public supplies through its annual monitoring programmes. The programmes ensure that samples are taken at planned times throughout the year at planned locations in the distribution network. These samples are taken from taps in businesses and homes. 

The EPA inspects Irish Water’s monitoring programmes to ensure that the results are from accredited laboratories. The laboratories analyzing the water samples must meet specific standards in their analysis methods.

Irish Water planned to remove potentially harmful lead from public supply connections. However, there has been a significant reduction in their work plan.  “There is a lack of urgency in addressing the removal of lead from our network and buildings,” said Minihan. 

While there was an increase in lead connection replacements in 2018 and 2019, compared to 2016 and 2017, during the four-year period, Irish Water has replaced 17% of service connections and backyard connections.

Irish Water has now substantially reduced the previously set targets for the 2020-2024 period with a 90% reduction in its target for replacements in 2020 compared with 2019. 

“Irish Water is highly unlikely to be able to meet its previous commitment in the Lead in Drinking Water Mitigation Plan to remove all public side lead pipework by 2026,” said Minihan.

The high reports of boil water notice, particularly in Dublin, might indicate that Dublin needs a new water source as its existing sources are considered insufficient.

“The Greater Dublin Area has been identified as an area where additional headroom is required as the demand for that area does not match the water supply,” said Minhan.

Meanwhile, Irish Water is examining solutions to identify additional water sources that can be used to meet the demand and ensure a safe supply of drinking water. 

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