I am the managing director of Irish Water. I am joined today by Mr. Michael O’Leary, general manager, and Ms Katherine Walshe, head of asset operations. I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to provide a general update on progress and developments in the water sector.
The year 2018 presented many challenges to Irish Water's operations. Two major storms, a number of serious incidents and a one-in-70-year drought put our resources under significant pressure. The Irish Water crisis management team was mobilised for long and sustained periods of the year managing these events. While the effort required during these incidents was a considerable draw on the organisation, by working closely and collaboratively with our partners in the local authorities, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and a number of agencies, including the EPA, the CRU, the HSE, Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, the ESB, the Office of Public Works, OPW, and others, we managed to keep the water and wastewater plants and networks operating, despite very challenging conditions. Field staff supported by logistical, procurement, communications and management teams worked tirelessly to minimise the impact on the people.
Managing national incidents helps Irish Water to refine continually its response to future events. We have stores of spare parts, large static water containers and bottled water supplies strategically located, and arrangements are in place to mobilise tankers at short notice. In addition, we work closely with our supply chain to ensure ready availability of critical equipment such as standby generators, etc. We regularly test our processes, including communication protocols, and we are key participants in the national emergency co-ordination group.
The most prolonged disruption to water services in 2018 was the drought, with water levels in rivers, lakes and aquifers reaching critical lows. Working with our partners in local authorities, our plants throughout the country were operating at maximum capacity, but unfortunately water restrictions became unavoidable in the areas worst affected.
The first national water conservation order - commonly known as a hosepipe ban - came into effect in July. Orders remained in place until September. Irish Water launched a nationwide water conservation campaign encouraging households and businesses to reduce water consumption where possible. The response to the campaign was extremely positive and water consumption fell across the country as a result. While we were extremely grateful for the excellent response from members of the public, the 2018 drought highlighted, in stark terms, that despite Ireland having an abundant supply of raw water, many of our current water abstractions and supply networks lack the resilience and flexibility to deal with these extreme weather events. This is a key challenge that will be addressed in the national water resources plan, to be launched in this year.
In addition to managing the day-to-day operational challenges, Irish Water continued maintaining, repairing and upgrading drinking water and wastewater infrastructure through its capital investment programme. We invested €670 million across the country to make our water supply safer and more reliable, to improve wastewater treatment and reduce its impact on the environment. Some 22 drinking-water schemes, supplying 166,000 customers, were upgraded and removed from the EPA's remedial action list, RAL. Disinfection was improved for a further 80 plants, supplying another 240,000 customers. We wrote directly to 165,000 households and businesses whose water supply remains on the RAL to explain to them the current status of the quality of their drinking water supply, the specific project or projects Irish Water will deliver to deal with the risk and how long it will take to complete the projects. Important projects like the Kerry central regional water supply scheme, Ballyboden reservoir, Staleen pipeline and Swords water main rehabilitation were all completed in 2018 and 300 km of old, poor-quality water mains were replaced with new pipes. We will invest €500 million up to 2021 on our leakage reduction programme, systematically finding and fixing leaks, repairing and replacing valves and bulk meters, replacing old backyard lead services and corroded cast iron pipework, and completing first-fix repairs on private property right across the country.
On the wastewater side, six wastewater treatment plants were completed in 2018 so that raw sewage is no longer discharged at Youghal, Ringaskiddy, Bundoran, Killybegs, Belmullet and Rush. The positive impact on the marine environment and bathing water quality in these coastal areas is significant and immediate. Priority work continues on the 37 remaining sites, some of which are at construction stage and the remainder of which are at planning stage, so this practice will be largely eliminated by 2021.
Having prioritised drinking-water quality in recent years, our public wastewater network is still in an extremely poor condition and this will take many years and hundreds of millions of euro to properly repair and replace. We have started this work. In 2018, we surveyed 175 km of sewer pipes and refurbished 47 km in priority areas. As has been highlighted many times, it will take decades and significant investment to bring Ireland's wastewater infrastructure up to the required standard.
In 2018, Irish Water submitted 53 planning applications and 40 CPOs to progress critical projects. Throughout the year, we engaged with our stakeholders and members of the public at local, regional and national levels. This ongoing engagement is a priority for Irish Water and will continue in 2019 and thereafter.
While we are completing projects in every county in Ireland, key milestones were reached on strategic projects that will have an important positive impact at a national level, both in economic and environmental terms. In Cork Harbour, where up to last year 10,000 tonnes of untreated sewage was pumped into the sea every day, the Cork Harbour main drainage project has now reduced that volume by half, connecting Ringaskiddy, Carrigaline and Crosshaven to the new treatment plant at Shanbally. The drilling of a subsea tunnel in 2019 will connect Passage West, Glenbrook, Monkstown and Cobh and allow the project to be completed in 2021, with a huge positive impact on the marine environment around Cork Harbour.
On the east coast, the Vartry tunnel, built with exceptional vision in the 1860s, was decommissioned in late 2018 with the completion of a new pipeline to bring treated water from Roundwood in County Wicklow to south Dublin. An upgraded treatment plant is under construction at Vartry and work is well under way to upgrade and cover the existing reservoir at Stillorgan, ensuring the quality of drinking water supply for 200,000 customers in Wicklow and Dublin.
Subject to the passing of the necessary legalisation, we anticipate that a planning application will be made to An Bord Pleanála in late 2019 that will secure a new sustainable water source for the eastern and midlands region up to 2050. Ringsend wastewater treatment plant, which treats 40% of Ireland's wastewater, will have a new upgrade complete in 2022 to deal with its serious capacity challenges. A planning application was submitted to An Bord Pleanála in 2018 in respect of the greater Dublin drainage project, which will provide wastewater treatment capacity for greater Dublin, also up to 2050. The combination of these drinking water and wastewater projects will ensure that current and future growth of the greater Dublin area and the eastern and midlands regions will have the critical water infrastructure required.
Over the past five years, Irish Water has established and consolidated national strategic capability to manage, improve and future-proof public water infrastructure to secure Ireland's economic growth and protect the environment. All future capital and operational investment will be in accordance with three thematic areas, as set out in the Government's 2018 water services policy statement.
With clarity around funding and policy, the next stage for Irish Water is to become a stand-alone publicly-owned, commercial regulated utility. Key to this is the transfer of staff from the local authorities. We welcome the invitation to participate in talks expected to begin shortly at the Workplace Relations Commission involving the unions as representatives of the staff, the LGMA, CCMA and the Department to develop a framework for the future which would replace the current service level agreement we have with local authorities.
Irish Water will increase capital investment by €150 million to €820 million in 2019. We are extremely vigilant in terms of value for money from a public procurement point of view and will work closely with our economic regulator, the CRU, to target further efficiencies in our capital and operational costs. By the end of 2019, we aim to complete work that will allow the EPA to assess a further 33 drinking-water supplies for removal from the RAL. With regard to untreated agglomerations, two more projects will be completed to stop the discharge of raw sewage. Work will continue on drainage area plans, DAPs, across the country.
Irish Water will publish its national water resources plan outlining a new approach to how we manage our water resources nationally. Ireland is not a water-stressed country but we need to fundamentally change how we manage available water resources. We will implement key policy initiatives in 2019, including a revised water tariff regime for businesses, which will be published shortly by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, and the new connections policy, which will go live in April of this year. We will also encourage water conservation and provide free first-fix leak repairs for households whose water use is very high to help them to reduce consumption and avoid excessive-use charges.
While 2018 was a particularly challenging year, we believe Irish Water, working in partnership with local authorities and our supply chain, managed to keep water and wastewater services operating in often very challenging circumstances. We achieved record capital delivery targets, improving the quality of drinking water and reducing untreated wastewater discharges across the country. While the challenges facing us are significant, we believe that we will continue to perform strongly, safeguarding our water resources for future generations. I thank the members for their time. We will be happy to answer any questions.