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Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government debate -
Thursday, 14 Feb 2019

Developments in the Water Sector: Discussion

Members and visitors in the Public Gallery are asked to ensure that, for the duration of the meeting, their mobile phones are turned off completely or on airplane or flight mode. It is not sufficient to turn phones onto silent mode as this maintains a level of interference in the broadcasting system.

No. 5 is an update on developments in the water sector. On behalf of the committee, I welcome officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh, Mr. Eamonn Waters and Mr. Colin Byrne; the representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Dr. Tom Ryan, Mr. Darragh Page and Mr. Andy Fanning; and from Irish Water, Mr. Eamon Gallen and Mr. Michael O'Leary.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Ó Coigligh to make his opening statement.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis na comhaltaí as deis a thabhairt dom labhairt ar chúrsaí uisce inniu. I thank the Chairman and committee members for this opportunity to update the committee on progress within the water sector. I am joined by my colleagues, Mr. Eamonn Waters, principal officer, water policy and rural water programme, and Mr. Colin Byrne, senior adviser, water and marine advisory unit.

I note that the committee specifically sought a briefing on developments on the recast directive on the quality of water intended for human consumption. A separate written update briefing has been provided on this matter and we will be happy to deal with any questions arising. The Water Services Policy Statement 2018-2025, published by Government in May 2018, sets out the broad vision for the development of water and wastewater services in Ireland, whether through the public network or otherwise. The statement, with three thematic areas of quality, conservation, and future proofing, is aligned with the river basin management plan for Ireland 2018-2021, Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland. Irish Water published its strategic funding plan 2019-2024, as approved by the Minister on 7 November 2018. Together, the policy statement and the strategic funding plan ensure a shared understanding between Government and Irish Water of the broad financial parameters and investment priorities and we will be happy to expand on these key documents.

The policy statement sets out four key principles that provide a useful framework within which I can update members on developments generally across the sector. The principle of one single publicly-owned national water services authority is consistent with the recommendations made by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, and the legislative reforms in the Water Services Acts. In July 2018, the Government decided that Irish Water would become a stand-alone, publicly-owned, commercial, regulated utility separated from the Ervia group during 2023. This was considered to be in the best strategic interests of the water services and gas networks businesses. The separation also enhances the heightened level of transparency and accountability required for Irish Water, given the level of Exchequer funding being provided to it. In this context, Irish Water has proposed fully integrating its operations and ending the current operational arrangements for the delivery of water services through service level agreements, SLAs, with local authorities. This, of course, will give rise to significant organisational change for local authorities and their staff.

To this effect, on 19 September 2018, the director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, reported on a process of engagement, undertaken at the Minister’s request with the parties involved in the transformation programme for Irish Water, including ICTU and relevant affiliated unions, local government management and the Department. In response to the WRC report, the Minister asked the parties to engage in a process to work towards the development of a stable structural and operational framework for the future. This engagement is to commence in the coming weeks.

Outside of the WRC process, the question of a constitutional amendment on the public ownership of water services is an important consideration in the context of the transformation programme. The Minister’s letter of 21 January 2019 to the chairperson of the committee outlines the current position on this matter. We also note the committee's letter to the Minister, which was received this week. The question of improving accountability through a potential role for the Comptroller and Auditor General regarding Irish Water also continues to be explored.

In line with the principle of fair and efficient delivery with a customer focus, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has a statutory responsibility to regulate the efficient delivery of water services in a balanced and even-handed manner that gives certainty and stability for customers and for Irish Water. The approved strategic funding plan for 2019 to 2024 sets out Irish Water’s multi-annual strategic funding requirement of €11 billion to 2024, comprising a €6.1 billion investment in infrastructure and assets and €4.9 billion in operating costs. This certainty about the level of Government funding will give Irish Water a reasonable time horizon to plan and work towards achieving cost efficiencies and service improvements during this period.

The CRU is also overseeing Irish Water’s policy proposals for addressing excess use of water services by domestic customers, as required under the Water Services Acts. The amount to be charged for excess use will be determined by the CRU, informed by a public consultation commencing shortly. The aim of this measure, as envisaged by the Oireachtas committee, is to encourage water conservation rather than to generate revenue. We can discuss this in more detail if required.

On broader issues of public health and the quality of our environment, the Government approved the general scheme of a water environment (abstractions) Bill to bring us into compliance with the abstraction control requirements of the Water Framework Directive. This will also ensure that there is an appropriate legal framework and a consent process in place to facilitate critical capital projects such as Irish Water’s eastern and midlands water supply project to serve the Dublin and mid-east regions. The current expected timeline would see legislation published by summer 2019. The CRU, as economic regulator, has been asked to review Irish Water’s proposed approach to the eastern and midlands water supply project. The review report is expected later this year.

At a more general level, the important research, analysis and monitoring work undertaken by the EPA has shown that, over the past decade, the quality of our water has stood still, at best, with some concerning indications of decline in certain areas. The European Commission has taken infringement cases against Ireland regarding the urban wastewater treatment directive and the drinking water directive. Of the urban areas where wastewater works are required, the majority will be compliant by end-2021, including Ringsend, which is the single largest wastewater treatment plant in the country, accounting for 41% of the total wastewater load.

Regarding the drinking water directive, Ireland has made significant progress in addressing THM, or trihalomethanes, exceedances at public water supplies managed by Irish Water. THMs are formed when chlorine used in drinking water treatment reacts with natural organic matter that remains following pre-treatment processes. Full compliance is expected to be achieved by the end of 2021, with the exception of the Lough Talt regional water supply scheme where particular planning difficulties arise. Irish Water has put in place new procedures for informing consumers of water quality issues where they are served by supplies listed on the EPA remedial action list.

It is essential that we take strong steps to protect and improve our water quality. The River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021, published in April 2018, sets out a range of detailed actions and implementing measures. Several specific actions are to be undertaken or are under way, involving local authorities and a range of State agencies. We can expand on this area as required. Public engagement on the next cycle of river basin management plans, to cover the period from 2022 to 2025, is also under way.

I want to conclude by making a brief mention of some recent developments which serve to strengthen public and stakeholder engagement. The Water Advisory Body is now up and running on a statutory basis. It has been empowered to advise the Minister on the measures needed to improve the transparency and accountability of Irish Water and to report to the Oireachtas on the performance of Irish Water in the implementation of its business plan.

An Fóram Uisce, the national water forum, is now place. The purpose of the forum is to provide a national stakeholder-led platform for public engagement on all matters relating to water as an environmental, social and economic resource. The forum provides an opportunity to debate and analyse a range of issues with regard to water quality, rural water concerns and issues affecting customers of Irish Water and the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive in this jurisdiction.

Last week, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced a revised multi-annual rural water programme. The improved capital programme of €23 million in 2019 provides for increased capital investment in group water schemes, a new grant measure for the development of community water services connections and enhanced grant schemes for private wells and septic tanks. A total of €75 million has been committed under the national development plan to 2021. I have addressed some of the more significant recent developments in my remarks and I and my colleagues are happy to respond to any questions.

Dr. Tom Ryan

I thank the Chairman for inviting the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to contribute to a discussion on developments in the water sector in the context of the EPA's most recent reports concerning urban wastewater treatment and water quality indicators for 2017. I am joined by my colleagues Mr. Darragh Page and Mr. Andy Fanning, who are programme managers with senior responsibility in the areas under discussion.

As the committee will be aware, the EPA is an independent statutory body established under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992. It has a wide range of responsibilities, including that of environmental regulator of Irish Water. The EPA's regulatory activities include the authorisation of wastewater facilities and the enforcement of those authorisations. The urban wastewater treatment report series provides an annual overview of key compliance findings and recommendations relating to these facilities. In addition, the EPA has statutory responsibility for monitoring the quality of the Irish environment, including the quality of our watercourses and public access to this monitoring information. The water quality indicators report series, which commenced in 2018, is part of the EPA's activities to meet its public information responsibility and it supplements the EPA's more comprehensive three-yearly reports on water quality in Ireland.

The EPA's role in wastewater regulation is to regulate discharges under the wastewater discharge regulations, as amended. While Irish Water, as the authorisation holder, is responsible for complying with authorisation conditions, the EPA enforces those conditions through an annual programme of inspections, monitoring and assessments. To enforce compliance, the EPA uses its legislative powers when necessary, up to and including prosecution. While committee members will note the detailed findings of our urban wastewater treatment report for 2017, I would highlight a number of them. Of the 179 large towns and cities monitored, wastewater treatment at 28 of them failed to meet the required standards set to prevent pollution and protect public health. Raw sewerage from the equivalent of 86,000 people in 37 towns and villages is still flowing into the Irish environment every day. Wastewater is one of the main threats to the quality of our rivers, lakes and estuaries and contributed to poor bathing quality at six beaches in 2017. The EPA acknowledges that these issues have not arisen overnight, that deficiencies exist in many treatment plants and public sewers due to a legacy of underinvestment, and that it is not possible to fix all the issues in the short term. In the meantime, the resources that are available need to be targeted to deliver improvements where they are most needed. In this regard, the EPA has identified the following as the most pressing issues that need to be addressed: the elimination of discharges of untreated wastewater; to treat wastewater from all large urban areas to meet European Union standards; to ensure wastewater does not cause pollution of inland and coastal waters; to improve treatment where required to protect bathing waters, shellfish waters and freshwater pearl mussels; and to rehabilitate or upgrade priority wastewater collection systems. While welcome progress is being made, it is the EPA's position that Ireland is not addressing the deficiencies in wastewater treatment infrastructure at a fast enough pace and, consequently, our health is continually exposed to risk and the water quality of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters continues to be negatively impacted.

The EPA has a statutory role in monitoring the quality of the environment, including a specific responsibility for a programme of monitoring to provide a comprehensive overview of water quality status in Ireland. To this end, we work with local authorities, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Marine Institute and Waterways Ireland. Arising from this work, and as part of our public information role, we published the Water Indicator Report 2017. Each indicator summarises a particular water quality parameter and presents the current situation and an indication of recent change. The findings include that there has been a net overall decline of 3% in good water quality over the two years 2016 and 2017, and long-term loss of high-quality river sites is continuing, with a further 0.6% decline since 2015. Most water pollution is caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorus entering waters coming from human activities, predominantly farms and urban areas. The increases in nutrients identified in the report are an early warning that we need to address the sources and the pathways by which these nutrients make their way into our rivers and lakes. On the positive side, the report also found that serious pollution continues to decrease and fish kills were at an all-time low in 2017. In summary, the signals in this report are not good and tell us that water quality is getting worse in some areas despite improvements in others. The success in addressing serious pollution and the reduction in fish kills shows that we can make positive changes with appropriate interventions through targeted investment in infrastructure in tandem with improved operational practices.

I again thank the committee for its interest in this important area of environmental protection and the EPA delegation will be happy to take any questions that members may have.

Mr. Eamon Gallen

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.

Most of my questions are for Irish Water. I thank our guests for their submissions.

I wish to refer to a few points that were not touched upon, some of which are outside the delegates' control. I will start off with the commercial harmonisation of rates. The CRU has still not published the information, which is disappointing. Irish Water has now been established for six years and we still do not have a harmonisation process in place for commercial rates. We are facing significant differences. The charge in Wicklow is €3.04 per cubic metre and in Kildare it is €1.59, with the largest possible user of water in Kildare being Intel. When will this be sorted out? I acknowledge that, at long last, the CRU did publish the details of the development contribution scheme, as we used to refer to it in the local authorities. The charge is coming in at roughly €6,200 per dwelling unit, on average. I am a bit confused by what I read in this regard. There is the infrastructure investment and there is the connection fee. Is there another fee on top of the €6,200 to get connected? Maybe the delegates could confirm that.

I have always been concerned about the development of infrastructure in rural areas. In my county and a number of my colleagues' counties, most smaller towns and villages have no capacity to develop or take on any development. Is there a plan for this process whereby we can start upgrading the wastewater facilities in rural towns and villages?

It could form part of the solution to the housing crisis. Many of the villages in County Wicklow are stagnating because there has not been a housing development in more than 20 years. It is beginning to affect the schools. In most of the villages with populations of under 1,000, there is no wastewater or water capacity. Is Irish Water focusing on that? Is any specific funding being ring-fenced for smaller, rural-type villages in order that they can develop and be part of the solution? If not, is a process available to allow developers to engage with Irish Water and offer some contribution to the upgrade of existing plants in these areas? If so, does a process have to be followed and is that process available for everyone to view? How is the contribution calculated, or is it done on a case-by-case basis?

On a positive note, I congratulate Irish Water on its work in response to the drought last year. It worked well, although we still need to educate people that even though we started shouting about drought in June, it was September that we should have been worried about. People kept telling me the reservoir was full but I said to return in September when it would not be. While the response was exceptionally good and worked at getting the message out, we could do more to educate people. I acknowledge that the oral hearing in the planning process for the wastewater treatment plant in Arklow has taken place. The plant was discharging raw sewage into the river and I welcome any progress on it.

Dr. Ryan mentioned 179 large towns, of which 28 are polluting. What does the EPA define as a large town? I am trying to get a handle on population growth. I am also interested that we still do not seem to have reached the capital investment that we need in order to fix the water infrastructure problem. The level of State intervention remains at approximately €86 million or €87 million. We were at that figure in 2007 or 2008 and we have only just returned to that level. We have not increased the level of capital funding from the State into water services. Will the Department engage on that?

Mr. Eamon Gallen

I thank the Deputy for his comments on the drought. He is correct about the education aspect. We are making plans for Lough Owel in Mullingar in case the drought hits us early. September is usually one of the top-three driest months, which many people are not aware of. Mr. O'Leary will address the questions about rural development while I will answer those on tariff harmonisation and connections.

On tariff harmonisation, it is up to the CRU to manage the consultation process and we will deal with the outcome. We have made a submission and we hope that the process will be progressed a long way down the road in 2019. It is likely to be 2020 before charges will be applied because we have to do IT system upgrades, notify people and so on. There will be a glide path for customers moving onto the tariffs. Charges in the Deputy's county, which is next door to the county with the lowest charges, are particularly high. In fact, the two counties have the highest and lowest charges in the country and there is inequity in that regard. A significant outcome of tariff harmonisation is equity throughout the country. Due to tariff harmonisation, 80% of customers will experience a rise in charges of less than €250 or a reduction in charges. Overall, therefore, the vast majority of customers will not see a large increase in tariffs, but some will be affected and the CRU is examining glide paths and so on. A determination will have to follow in that regard. In short, we expect there to be much progress in 2019, with charges applying from 2020.

On the connection schemes, there is only one charge, which is the connection charge. We engage with developers and they can do it in two ways, namely, in bulk, where they enter an agreement with payments staged or upfront for multiple housing units, or they can break them into smaller chunks at the same rates in order that they do not have to invest in 100 houses before the first 20 are sold. We work with developers in that regard. We deal with small and large developers but in the case of the latter, we assign dedicated account managers to help them in the process. For example, if there are more than 300 houses, we will quote separate rates for wastewater, while if there are more than 250 houses, we will quote a separate rate for water. For smaller developments, the rates are standard but we will engage with developers on everything from timing to phasing of payments and so on.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

To respond to Deputy Casey's question about rural development, Irish Water is committed to the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, which is funded by the Government and assists with local infrastructure and housing in small towns and villages. The Irish Water draft investment plan contains a proposal for small towns and villages that is aimed, in particular, at smaller settlements to provide water and wastewater infrastructure. We will work closely with local authorities to identify where that investment is needed.

Through the national water resources plan, our intention is to visit every local authority to address water and wastewater issues with the local developer and the local planners to determine what is needed and where it is needed. Working with them and using the funding through LIHAF and the small towns and villages programme in the investment plan, we intend for there to be targeted improvements in infrastructure to facilitate the local housing and development which the Deputy is seeking.

Dr. Tom Ryan

The definition of a larger city or town derives from the requirement in the directive to have secondary treatment in place. It is different depending on where the discharge goes. In short, however, if the discharge goes to an inland water, river or lake, a large town is defined as having a population of more than 2,000, while if it goes to a coastal area, it is 10,000. Anything above that requires, as a minimum, secondary treatment to be in place. It may require additional treatment but, as a minimum, it requires secondary treatment.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Deputy Casey asked about long-term investment and whether sufficient resources are being made available. As a result of the debate on water, we have a strong policy context for water services, through the strategic funding plans and a commitment from the Government to increase resources under the national development plan to deliver on our shared objectives. Capital expenditure, for example, is expected to increase from €856 million in 2019 to €1.3 billion in 2024. There is an increasing allocation for the capital investment needs. In the long term, that is, the next 25 years rather than just the next five to seven years, we plan to put in place the capital investment necessary to underpin high-quality environmental and economic development in the country.

Deputy Pat Casey took the Chair.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I have four areas of questions. On the EPA reports, we in the committee have given a commitment over three years that every time the reports are published, one of the important steps we want to take is inviting all the stakeholders to interrogate the reports, not only to give the EPA another platform to raise the issues but also to hear directly from Irish Water and the Department. I am keen to hear their views in that regard.

In the appendices of the report, one can see the 132 areas where improvements are needed to resolve environmental priorities, the list of the 28 large urban areas that have not met the directive and the list of the 38 urban areas discharging untreated water. When we compare those with the 2016 report, we see that while there has been a reduction at one level, given that in 2016 some 148 urban areas were of concern to the EPA, the difficulty is that the reduction is not a straightforward net reduction and some areas are being added to the list. While some are being removed from the list, others are being added, which is counter-intuitive because one would have thought that as capital investment increases and the planning permission is processed, there should be a gradual overall reduction, without new areas slipping. It is a concern and I would be interested to hear the views of all three organisations on it.

I also draw the attention of Irish Water and the Department to one of Dr. Ryan's points, namely, a strong criticism that we are not addressing the issues fast enough. Notwithstanding the significant increase in capital investment, the speed is not enough, which confirms the European Court of Justice's decision.

While overall capital expenditure is increasing, is an adequate proportion of that going to tackle the various issues that are identified in the Environmental Protection Agency's report, particularly the larger number of the 132 urban areas where improvements are needed? I asked this on the last occasion too. For example, in 2014, 2015 and 2016, overall investments in upgrading wastewater treatment plants and networks reduced dramatically. That seems to have moved in the right direction, but can Mr. Gallen give us a breakdown as to what quantum of the capital investment is going into those particular works?

Is the Department in a position to give us an update on where matters stand with the European Court of Justice and the European Commission? I understand, even after the negative judgment of the ECJ, there is clearly a period of time where the State gets to demonstrate that it is getting its house in order. Is Mr. Ó Coigligh comfortable that the work the Department and its colleagues in Irish Water are doing is convincing the European Commission that we are on track? Is he comfortable that if we meet the targets, as he outlined, by 2021, we will not face significant European Court of Justice fines for further non-compliance? Can he give us an updated read on all of that?

In terms of the Shannon pipeline, two issues have been a regular feature of our discussions here. While most of us absolutely accept the need to diversify Dublin and the regions' water supply and to increase capacity, two of the issues we keep coming back to are whether there is any additional capacity in the aquifers in the midlands and eastern region, and whether there can be an acceleration of leakage reduction in the public water system. I understand that Irish Water or Ervia was going to conduct some updated surveys around aquifers, could they can give us information on that?

Every time we ask this question, we get the same answer that leakage reduction in the public system is difficult to achieve. In Temple Bar it is, but not all of Dublin is like Temple Bar. Will we see any acceleration of the leakage reduction in the public water system? None of that is an argument for or against the Shannon pipeline project. I again express the concern that if the pipeline goes ahead as is currently proposed, 40% of the water that will be pumped across the State will be lost immediately in the network, and that does not seem to make economic or environmental sense. Are we still in the same position or has there been any improvement?

From the Department's point of view, will we get the abstraction licensing legislation this year? Can Mr. Ó Coigligh give us an update on that? Will that delay the planning application? Mr. Gallen stated the application will go in at the end of this year. His predecessor was telling us that it would go in at an earlier stage. My understanding is the delay was not at Irish Water's end. It was to do with the abstraction legislation. That may or may not be the case. If witnesses can give us a view on that, it would be helpful.

Lastly, on the single utility, there are elements of that negotiation which are a matter for the employer and the unions, particularly in terms of the legacy costs that the CCMA is concerned with and the terms and conditions that the workers are concerned with. I will leave that to the WRC process. Many of us here have two very significant public policy concerns, on which I am interested in the witnesses' response. The first is whether the single utility is commercial or non-commercial. It makes a big difference. I understand - we have spoken about this previously - that Ervia and Irish Water's preference is for a commercial utility because it has borrowing capacity and maybe a little more independence from the annual budgetary cycle. Given that it is on balance sheet, I am not sure that is the case. Given that the borrowings are still more expensive if they are in the commercial context from the private sector, has any consideration been given to finding a way of ensuring funding security for the capital investment programme which we all agree is needed but in a non-commercial semi-State context? During the Joint Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, we spent quite a lot of time wondering how one could provide that funding certainty to a non-commercial public water utility, for example, through contractual relationships not unlike those with design-build operators where one guarantees capital funding, whether it is loan or Exchequer, over a set period of time and there is a legally binding commitment from the Department. If Irish Water had funding certainty, it probably would not care too much whether it was commercial or non-commercial. The value from the taxpayers' point of view is that borrowing is cheaper. It makes more financial sense. It probably would also assist the company with its IR issues with the trade unions because it would be covered by the public sector pay agreement.

I realise the referendum is a matter for Cabinet and Mr. Ó Coigligh probably cannot answer the question. Let me express the frustration anyway. We have been talking around this referendum now for over two years. Second Stage of the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No. 2) Bill 2016, in the name of Deputy Joan Collins and the rest of us, was passed in November 2016. It appears from the outside that the Department will have a difficult job convincing the unions about the package of issues that the WRC will look at if there is not a date for a referendum. That is a matter for Cabinet and for the Minister and the Attorney General. Many of us are growing increasingly frustrated that there is a promise of a referendum but the longer that gap stretches, the more difficult it will be for many, both in the political process and in the union and employee end of it, to take that political commitment seriously. I emphasise the importance of that referendum. It was the single biggest issue of submissions to the Government's expert group. It was a major preoccupation of the Joint Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. Mr. Ó Coigligh cannot tell us when it will happen and when the wording will be available, but without that the process will encounter fairly big difficulties.

I am particularly interested in Irish Water and the Department's responses to the EPA's concerns, particularly that list at the end of the appendices of the 2017 report.

We will start with Mr. Gallen.

Mr. Eamon Gallen

I will deal briefly with the EPA. Mr. O'Leary will deal with the investment and also the WRC. I will deal with the rest and if I miss anything, we will try to pick it up.

Without getting into the detail of the figures - Mr. O'Leary will cover that on the EPA side - in some of the statistics the Deputy is saying that we are going down and then coming back up. If I use the example of the dirty 44 with which people would be familiar - the untreated agglomerations where we were discharging untreated effluent into watercourses and into the sea - standards have risen, more get caught in the net and there are more audits, etc. It started at 44 cases, went up to 50 in total and is now down at 37. As I stated earlier, we plan to have most of those off by 2021. There will be some that will probably take a little bit longer but they will be well under way by 2021. What happens is one starts at 44, standards go up, more fall under the bar and are added to the list, or there are more intensive audits, but overall we have come from 50 down to 37. We will get another two next year and substantially more by 2021. Mr. O'Leary will deal with some of the specifics around the investment.

With regard to the eastern midlands water supply project, Deputy Ó Broin is absolutely right. Besides anything else, it is a difficult message to sell that we will take it from the Shannon, bring it up to Dublin and put it into Dublin's foundations. We are working hard on the leakage side to get leakage down. Leakage reduction alone will not solve this problem for us but we have €500 million set aside nationally between now and 2021 to get leakage down. Our target is 166 million l a day, 44 million l a day of which will be in Dublin, which will make a significant difference but will not get us down as far as we need to get. At present - these figures fluctuate, seasonally and otherwise - we are at 45% leakage nationally and 35% in Dublin. It is still an awful lot of water. Considering we produce 600 million l a day, 200 million l leaking is an awful lot of water. We absolutely have to get that down.

On the broader point of the need for the water supply project, if one takes the fact that 85% of Dublin's water, which is 45% of the Liffey's flow, is one source, besides anything else one needs a security of supply solution there. In addition, it is likely, at 45%, that that is not sustainable long-term. Aside from the fact of the pure supply, we have issues around security of supply and resilience for the capital city and, indeed, the midlands region, which will take 30% of the water.

With regard to aquifers, we are actively looking at alternative sources of water all the time. We are intensifying that at present because if the water supply project is delayed for whatever reasons, and there are many reasons it could be delayed, we will have to keep water going into Dublin. We are actively looking for alternative sources, not least because if some water-intensive industries came into the country they would need water immediately and we have to be able to supply them. In answer to that question, we are doing that all the time and we have recently intensified that. We are about to embark on a multi-million euro programme, specifically down towards the Meath and south Dublin area, to try to see if there is more water available. We will continue with that.

I will hand over to Mr. O'Leary.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

Looking at the spend, I would make a general comment to start with that when Irish Water initially started out on the capital investment programme, by necessity the focus had to be on the drinking water side and the public health issues arising from same. That was the primary focus at the start.

As Mr. Gallen alluded to in his submission, the progress that has been made on drinking water is evident from the fact that, by the end of 2019, there will only be approximately 30 schemes left on the EPA's remedial action list. That pendulum is now very much swinging towards the wastewater spend. The spend on wastewater is increasing yearly. By 2020 or 2021, the spend on wastewater will exceed that for drinking water. The projections for 2022 show that what we will be spending on wastewater will be nearly the same as the total spent on the full capital investment programme last year. Therefore, right up to 2024-----

Does Mr. O'Leary have a breakdown of the spend on wastewater and on drinking water from last year?

Mr. Michael O'Leary

The spend on wastewater in 2018 was €230 million and the spend on drinking water was €396 million. Looking forward to 2022, the spend on wastewater will be €511 million and €361 million will be spent on drinking water. That will continue up to 2024, when the spend on wastewater will come back down and the two will merge. We will have to see what the spend will be then from there on. We work very closely with the Department and with our colleagues in the EPA to determine where to target and prioritise spend.

To look at some of the locations, out of the total of 179, by 2021 works will be completed at 21 of the 28 large agglomerations to which I referred. The remaining six will be addressed by 2024. To look at the 57 locations identified in the EPA report as impacting on water quality, we have completed upgrade works in 36 of these locations and are carrying out assessments at the others. That will also be completed by 2024. Mr. Gallen has alluded to the untreated agglomerations which started out as the "dirty 44". It is now the "dirty 50" but we have removed 44% of the raw sewage being discharged. The EPA and ourselves know what the priorities are. We work very closely with the EPA. We acknowledge that the speed heretofore may not have been what was required but there were reasons for that. The pendulum is certainly now swinging towards the wastewater side. We should see an acceleration of compliance in that regard.

To briefly touch on the issues of the single public utility and the WRC, I am conscious that we are getting into talks with the WRC very shortly. I do not want to get into too much detail but, from an Irish Water perspective, we are publicly owned and primarily an insourced business. Commercial considerations are important to us. We are regulated. We want to be commercial and we want to be regulated. Being commercial goes beyond the boundaries of where funding comes from. It has other benefits relating to the types of contract into which we can enter and so on. Certainly, from an Irish Water perspective, we very much want to continue to be publicly owned, commercial and regulated.

Dr. Tom Ryan

The Deputy raised the specific question of the EPA priorities mentioned in appendix A of our report. He asked why the numbers fluctuate a little bit. There are two main components to that. One is the investment needed to address the legacy of poor infrastructure and to bring it up to standard. There is an investment plan. We talk about the pace of investment and all of that. The other component is operational matters. There will always be ongoing issues in plants which may bring them into or out of compliance. There may be increased pressures on a particular area where an agglomeration increases in size, putting pressure on a plant. Such a plant would then have to be brought up to specification to deal with that capacity. There will always be ongoing regulatory issues there. I emphasise that there is no end point to this. It will require continual investment over decades both to bring the plants up to spec and to maintain an appropriate level of water quality and treatment.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

It is important to emphasise again that we now have really good policy infrastructure. All three bodies - the Department, the EPA, and Irish Water - are working to a common agenda. It is absolutely right that the EPA should keep our feet to the fire on that, as indeed does the European Commission, to begin to address the Deputy's next question. We are all on a clear trajectory so that, by 2021 or thereabouts, we will have dealt with almost all of our shortcomings in respect of the urban wastewater treatment directives. We expect a judgment in the European Court of Justice at the end of March. The Deputy is right; the process will then depend on the judgment. If it is adverse, we will enter into negotiations with the Commission as to how to address the judgment before the Commission thinks of taking next steps. Given the Government's commitment, the level of investment under the national development plan, and the clear work programme of Irish Water, I am hopeful that we will be able to get a good outcome in that regard.

With regard to the judgment on urban wastewater which was decided against us, is the programme sufficient to avoid fines if those targets are met by 2021?

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

We will certainly be putting the case to the Commission that we have a really clear trajectory, but we have to deliver on it to make sure we have credibility. There are areas with regard to the environment in Ireland in which we have lacked credibility because of a failure to deliver so we really have to deliver on this to ensure that we avoid fines. We will be engaging and we do have a very good story to tell when we engage with the Commission. As we know from other worlds, the Commission negotiates quite hard. It will not give us an easy passage. We will all be put to the pin of our collars to deliver. There are other issues in respect of water and there are fresh infringement actions in that regard. As Dr. Ryan said in respect of the EPA, the need to invest is a continual process. With regard to the Commission, complying with directives is also a continuing process. The Commission looks at each member state. If it feels that the state is not in compliance it takes it to court. We will keep revisiting the issue to ensure that we are in compliance. We are not the only member state in that position.

With regard to the legislation on abstraction, we are hopeful that we will publish it this year. We have said it will be published by summer. We have a general scheme, which was agreed by Government in July. There was public consultation on that. We have had comments back. There are complexities in the area. Water rights are an issue. It is taking us a little bit of time to work through that, but we will be giving it some priority in order to try to deliver the legislation. It should be noted that the Minister asked the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to review the Shannon project. That is expected to take most of this year. Planning, the review and the legislation need to run in parallel rather than sequentially to minimise delays.

The Deputy mentioned the transformation process. Obviously we will be entering the WRC process in the coming weeks. Local authorities have issues in respect of legacy costs. We had a meeting with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, on that yesterday. The unions want to talk to the Department about the status of Irish Water, the issue of being commercial or non-commercial, and the referendum. On the issue of being commercial or non-commercial, as Mr. O'Leary pointed out there are advantages to the commercial nature of the company. Sometimes people think it has to be one or the other, that it is a zero-sum game, and that something is either a non-commercial body or a commercial body. This is a public utility. It will be 80% funded by the taxpayer. As Mr. O'Leary said, it uses an insourced model. It is not like the profit-making commercial bodies one would see in other areas of the semi-State sector. It is Government policy that it act in a commercial fashion and drive efficiency. It is regulated by the regulator. It has commercial features, which are considered very important, as well as features of a public utility, which are equally important. I do not believe it is a zero-sum game but I appreciate that the unions have their own position on that. The Deputy also mentioned a referendum. To reiterate the position, the Minister brought proposals to Government. They are being considered by the Attorney General.

We are in constant contact with the Office of the Attorney General. However, we do not have a final timeframe for delivery of final wording.

I feel this is a rather strange or weird meeting. There are Deputies and Senators and representatives of Irish Water, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department. There are 12 people here from those four groups and every one is a man. There is not a single woman sitting up front around the table here. Whenever this point is highlighted at meetings, the point is noted and then things move on so that the real business of the meeting is discussed. However, I will give over some of my ten minutes to asking questions that are pertinent on this matter.

I will begin by asking representatives of Irish Water what percentage of its senior management team is made up of women?

Mr. Eamon Gallen

Some 30% of Irish Water's senior management is women. It is only a matter of logistics that those seated around the table are men. Katherine managed all the operations through all the crises last year. She was in charge of the asset operations across the country and was instrumental in our performance during 2018. It is a matter of the seating arrangement.

Katherine is the woman-----

Mr. Eamon Gallen

This is Katherine Walshe seated behind me who is head of asset operations.

We could not facilitate Ms Walshe because of the restrictions of the seats.

"We could not facilitate Ms Walshe because of the restrictions of the seats"?

Mr. Eamon Gallen

Apologies, I was mistaken. The figure for women in senior management is 40%. It is four in ten.

I am not sure that I understand the point that Ms Walshe could not be facilitated because of the restrictions of the seats.

There are only eight seats at the table.

I do not think that it is pedantic. I think it tells a story about what goes on in this place far too often. I am making a bit of a point about it this morning but I will move on and ask the same question of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dr. Tom Ryan

The EPA has an executive board of six members. Two are women, including our director general. There are 12 senior managers at programme manager level, of whom four are women.

Finally, I ask the same question of the water division of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Three of the seven assistant secretaries are women. I just replaced Ms Maria Graham, who was in charge of the water area for a long time, over the past eight or nine years, both as principal officer and then assistant secretary. She had to soldier through the difficult period. Only three of six positions on my team are currently filled, of which one by a woman. The other three positions are under process. It just happens that in recent weeks I replaced the female assistant secretary in this post.

I will move on and ask my water-related questions. I will make one point before that. I do not think that it is good that this situation arose here this morning. The committee needs to have a discussion about avoiding similar positions in future. It should not happen. I am also not comfortable about continuing the meeting where there is an all-male panel of eight people, with a woman representing one of the organisations seated in the background because the seating arrangements could not be facilitated. Is there something that we can do about that this morning before we go on?

Does Irish Water care to swap one of its speakers?

If someone cares to sit in the seat beside me they are very welcome to do so.

I have two questions and I will ask both together. The first relates to the CRU. It has a public consultation starting shortly on the amount to be charged for this new excessive-use charge, which my party believes is a Trojan horse for water charges. We take a keen interest in what is happening here. When precisely will the public consultation start? If a date cannot be given perhaps we can be told the number of months or weeks after which it will take place.

My next question is on preparations for the single water utility. The WRC is playing a role in bringing together the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, management in the local authorities, ICTU and the unions for engagement on this issue. We are told this engagement will commence in the coming weeks. Can we be more precise than that? If we cannot have a date are we looking at the month of February, March or April? When is it due to commence?

The need for a constitutional referendum on keeping water in public ownership is very important. Reference has been made to it this morning. It has been delayed by the Minister but I welcome the fact the committee has a hearing on progressing this coming up very soon. It is an important meeting on which we will focus. My questions relate to engagement with the unions and the question of public consultation.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

I will deal with the question on the WRC. We are expecting an invitation any day to attend. It could be next week or the following week. The WRC is checking with all parties to come up with a suitable starting date for the discussions. We certainly hope it will we start in the month of February. How long it will take thereafter we do not know.

Mr. Eamon Gallen

I want to correct something. Of the management team five of the 11 are women including the heads of human resources, asset operations, and customer operations and the acting head of environment regulation. We also have the head of corporate affairs who is cross-functional so we could say six of 12. I apologise for giving the wrong number earlier. I left out somebody who is acting.

The excessive use charge will be subject to a consultation process by the CRU. As the Deputy knows, that is Government policy. We do not come up with policy, we implement it. We believe the big benefit will be conservation rather than charges. As members are probably aware, 7% of people use 30% of the water. We believe the vast majority of this is due to leakage. We will engage with people and give them plenty of notice about their excessive use and do everything we can to repair leaks to save us the cost of treating, chemicals, electricity and pumping, which are extremely expensive. The big benefit we see, for the utility and nationally, is the reduction in wastewater and the increase in conservation. Large households can apply for additional allowances and people with special circumstances or medical needs can apply for exemptions also. We believe a very small number of people will end up paying and our intention is to do everything to make that number as small as possible. We are not interested in the revenue as much as we are in reducing leakage and promoting conservation.

Does anyone else wish to comment?

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

I just wish to reiterate Irish Water's position in terms of the CRU. The office is independent but its job is to implement the policy recommended by the Oireachtas joint committee which was enacted in the Water Services Act.

As the only Member of the current Oireachtas with a declared disability, I could ask whether the Department has met the 6% requirement for employment of people with disabilities in accordance with public service obligations. I could also ask how many of the senior management have a declared disability. I will not do so because it is not appropriate to do it, and it is certainly not appropriate to embarrass public servants who are just doing their job. I very much distance myself from what happened earlier.

That said, I have a couple of short questions. Will the witnesses from Irish Water talk me through how they deal with planning applications? I know of a case in Clare where a hotelier is applying for additional accommodation that is badly needed in a tourism area. The council is seeking further information because of a concern relating to overcapacity in water and sewage. The architect and agent on behalf of the client contacted Irish Water in November and as of yesterday that party has received neither an acknowledgement nor even a reference number with which to follow up the query and try to come back with a response to Clare County Council. Consent by or an agreement with Irish Water is necessary in the case. A period where further information is requested is allowed for six months and following that the application would become invalid. This does not really give people much time to deal with an application. We are now in the middle of February and the further information was sought last October. What is the process and how does Irish Water handle this type of query? Is it appropriate that an agent would not even get an acknowledgement from Irish Water going back to last November?

Mr. Eamon Gallen

I do not doubt the facts outlined by the Senator and we will certainly follow up his query. If his statement is correct, I apologise, as that is not up to the standards we set for ourselves and it is not acceptable for the people involved. They should have received a reference number straight away for a pre-connection inquiry or a full inquiry. If the Senator gives me the specific details, I will follow up on them.

The normal process is it can take up to ten weeks to get through the system with either a pre-connection inquiry or a full application for connection. There are many steps involved with capacity planning, etc., so it is a long process not unlike that of other utilities. The customer should be informed all the way through so if the Senator gives me the specifics of the case, I will follow up on them.

I will and I appreciate that. There are many towns and villages seeking an upgrade of wastewater treatment facilities, sewerage systems, etc. There are a number of towns, particularly in tourism areas, where applications are lodged but the response is that they are premature ahead of the upgrading of wastewater and sewerage systems. The problem is these villages are being left behind. I can think of two examples, and it can be very frustrating for the people in the village involved if there are people willing to spend money to extend businesses and develop badly needed housing, but if an application is made, the response is that it is premature ahead of the infrastructure being developed. What criteria are used to identify and proceed with these developments, particularly in rural tourism areas? I know Clare County Council is so frustrated by schemes now that it has applied through the rural regeneration programme for two schemes in County Clare, with one in Broadford and another in Cooraclare. To be frank, many people would argue the rural regeneration scheme is not the appropriate vehicle to provide for this type of scheme and it is the responsibility of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. These questions are for Irish Water and the Department. What is happening with these schemes and will communities just be left on the long finger indefinitely?

Mr. Michael O'Leary

Similarly to the response I gave to Deputy Casey earlier, we have specific programmes targeted at smaller villages to try to maintain and assist development in rural villages and small towns. It comes through the LIHAF programme and our current and capital investment programme. We are guided by the national planning framework and the local authority development plans but we make funding specifically available to local authorities. If there is a small town, village or rural community they wish to develop, they have the discretion to use that funding. We work very closely with local authorities. The Senator's example of an application being deemed premature probably relates to our previous discussion about where the priority capital investment programme is targeted. That is now swinging very much towards the wastewater side.

The local authority might indicate the top three priorities in a county are A, B and C. Clare County Council, for example, could make an application to Irish Water and specifically point out Broadford and Cooraclare as the number one and two priorities, but what kind of timeframe would come into play to move these on?

Mr. Michael O'Leary

Realistically, with the development of any infrastructure the minimum to be considered would probably be a five-year horizon. That is by the time the parties go through the various statutory processes such as identifying a site and getting planning permission, and a compulsory purchase order may be required. There is probably a timeframe that cannot really be cut. In the best-case scenario it would probably be four to five years.

Why did Irish Water consent to applying for those two schemes through the rural regeneration fund? Did it believe such action was appropriate?

Mr. Michael O'Leary

I am not familiar with the consent that Irish Water would have given but I am quite happy to take up the matter and check it out before getting back to the Senator.

Such action creates confusion and builds expectations within communities that may not be realistic. I would love to see the two projects being funded through the rural regeneration scheme but we must have clear communication on such matters.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

The Minister announced funding measures under the new multi-annual rural water programme last week. One of the new specific measures relates to what are described as community connections, which allow communities to come together to seek funding under the programme through the Department to develop drinking water and wastewater schemes. There is a funding stream with grants up to a maximum of 85% of cost, amounting to €7,650 per household, to allow those schemes to go ahead. Local authorities have been invited to submit bids under the scheme and that will happen over the next few weeks.

This arose from the review put in place following the Oireachtas joint committee hearings and the report from 2017. The Minister put the review in place to examine how the rural water programme operated. A second part of the review considers the long-term needs for rural water. There is a general acknowledgement that there are deficits in infrastructure but the immediate issue was to address what can be done now through the rural water programme. That is being done. The report on the long-term issue is expected to get to the Minister later this year. In the group there is the National Federation of Group Water Schemes, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the local authorities, the Health Service Executive and so on. It is a broad-based group and measures are being put in place in the short term, with plans for the long term.

I certainly get the sense from the engagements we have had of this nature over recent years that there is far greater co-ordination between the different bodies.

I want to acknowledge that.

I want to go back to the appendices in the EPA's 2017 report. There has been a significant improvement in terms of urban wastewater treatment directive non-compliant locations, as can be seen in the figures. However, the rate of improvement in other areas is far slower. Appendix A, which deals with the priority areas, shows a reduction from 148 to 132 locations, which is close to a 10% improvement. On the areas discharging wastewater, again, there is a reduction from 44 to 38, so it is about a 14% improvement. On the pressured water bodies, there is a reduction from 59 to 57. I can fully understand why, on foot of a European Court of Justice decision, the priority would go into tackling those areas. My worry, however, concerns all the other areas, given the EPA is year after year raising this significant number of cases. I share the concern Dr. Tom Ryan diplomatically put in his commentary that the speed of improvement in those other areas is clearly much slower than for those that are in breach of the urban wastewater treatment directive. I acknowledge we are dealing with data from 2017 and it is now 2019. When we get the EPA report for 2018, there will be much greater improvements in those three or four appendices that will evidence the increased investment and increased co-ordination between the various players. If I am not reading the report right, the witnesses might let me know.

Mr. Ó Coigligh mentioned new infringement proceedings. He might provide some information about the current position on those proceedings.

On a question for Mr. Gallen, we have had plenty of debates about the so-called charge for wasteful usage. One of the concerns is the cost of repairs, given the figure of 7% of households is clear. However, we do not know whether they are using that water or whether the water is leaking as a result of the properties being older, or whether, even if the householders get plenty of notice, they will have the financial capacity to upgrade their own systems. In Irish Water's conversations with the Department and the Government, is there mention of how to enhance assistance for households that simply will not be able to cover the cost? I am thinking in particular of rural Ireland, older people and families that could be asset rich but income poor. This would ensure that nobody would be charged for something they are not using, which could be as a result of lack of ability to pay the cost of repairs.

Mr. Eamon Gallen

We have a well-established free first fix scheme, with which the Deputy is familiar. Without straying into changes in policy, our interest is in saving water and we will do whatever we can to work with customers to save it, and we will be as reasonable as we possibly can. We have rules about stopcocks inside and outside a property, and all that kind of thing, but we will work around that to help people, if necessary. We certainly do not want to penalise elderly people who have a leak inside their house or where they cannot repair something under their driveway. We have no interest in that and we will work with them. While it would be very difficult to say we can commit to do everything free for everybody, and go into everybody's house and sort out their plumbing, nonetheless, the Deputy's point is well made. There are people who genuinely want to work with us and who do not have the wherewithal to effect repairs. We will deal with that as sympathetically as possible and work with them. We want people to avoid paying these charges, not to enforce them.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

I will respond on the priority action list, PAL. As Mr. Gallen noted, in 2018 we got six of the untreated agglomerations off the list and we hope to get two off in 2019. For various reasons, it takes time, but they are all on a trajectory to 2021, by which time the vast majority will be dealt with. At the end of 2018, 132 plants were on the PAL. By the end of 2019, that will be down to 104, then 98 by 2020 and, by 2021 it will-----

Mr. O'Leary said it was 132 by the end of 2018. I thought it was 132 by the end of 2017.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

Some were added and some removed in the interim. As assessments are carried out, and through working with the EPA, we are coming to a convergence of views as regards what should and should not be on the list. The priority action list is in its infancy and is no different to the remedial action list that was there for drinking water. The exact same approach will be taken and there will be very targeted investment to get those schemes off the PAL.

There are 24 counties included in that figure of 132 plants. At what point in the Irish Water programme does it expect that number to start to reduce significantly?

Mr. Michael O'Leary

By 2021, it will be down to approximately 70 and it should fall away after that. While I expect it to be lower than 70 by 2021, the problem is we have not carried out a full detailed assessment in regard to new ones that will be added and what mitigation or investment is needed for them. There will be targeted investment to deal with that and we are working with the EPA on it. However, I do not want to create illusions about the position when the 2018 report is published in 2019. These things take time. Our investment programme works in bundles so we try to progress a number of schemes at the same time. When they start coming to construction, many will come to completion at the same time and we should see a step improvement.

Mr. Colin Byrne

To clarify, a couple of initiatives are ongoing and are reflected in our river basin plan, which was published last year. Keeping in mind that we are beginning to put manners on our approach to dealing with non-compliance, our primary objective, which is reflected on page 63 of the plan, is to achieve full compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive but, thereafter, it is also looking at protected areas such as bathing waters, shellfish waters, high status catchments and priorities that have been identified in the plan, given we prioritise areas. That will have an impact and we will start to take bigger chunks off that list. Another important initiative, which is committed to on page 67 of the plan, is that the EPA will review urban wastewater discharge licences based on a better evidence base. When we do the reassessments, this may change that list because the situation may not be as non-compliant as we had thought. We are in the process of trying to put resources in place within the agency to carry out that review on a prioritising, targeted basis. There are, therefore, a couple of processes ongoing which will start to give us a better handle on that list.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

With regard to the infringement action, we recently received a letter of formal notice, which is the first stage in any possible action, from the Commission in regard to the Water Framework Directive. It revisits a number of areas that had come up previously that we had hoped to have dealt with in a water environment Bill which did not proceed, given other priorities on the water side. It is quite lengthy but much of it is technical in regard to whether our definitions are completely aligned with the directive, as well as there being some substantive issues, for example, in regard to the absence of control on abstractions, which is what the abstraction Bill is to deal with. We have just received it and it is quite complex. We will engage with it to try to understand the full implications and we will then go back to the Commission.

Dr. Tom Ryan

I want to clarify one issue under discussion on the priority areas as set out in the EPA's report on wastewater treatment plants. That list of priorities is set on our current and ongoing assessment, so we have a lot of confidence in that list and it is the list we use to discuss priorities with Irish Water. The reference that was made to the six-yearly review was made because, under the legislation, the licences of wastewater treatment plants have to be reviewed every six years. That is a separate legislative requirement that has to be complied with and we are in negotiations with the Department on workforce planning around that piece.

I have a few follow-up questions, most specifically for the Department. What significant issues remain outstanding before any Council text is agreed? Can the Department inform the committee as to the position of other member states on this proposal? Is there a divergence of views among the other states?

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Is this the new directive?

Yes. I have a few more questions so I will put them first. Have the EU institutions modified their proposals based on the subsidiary concerns raised in the national assembly? What is the new anticipated timeline for the progression of a dossier and is there any indication of an implementation date? Is it likely that this proposal will still have a substantial impact on Ireland?

Mr. Colin Byrne

The situation is that progress with the proposal has been slow. There is not yet a mandate for the Presidency to enter into the trilogue negotiations with the European Parliament and Commission as yet. The Presidency is with Romania. In my view, looking at the way things have proceeded, it could be June before there is a mandate for it to enter negotiations. The engagement will probably happen during the Finnish Presidency.

The reasoned opinion issued by parliament last year was one of four from several member states, including the UK, Austria and the Czech Republic. The Germans had some concerns as well. There were concerns about subsidiarity and proportionality. That has certainly informed our engagement at the working party on the environment in respect of our position. Keeping in mind that these are discussions within Council and member state positions, there has been a significant shift which addresses the concerns this committee has on the issue of subsidiarity. There is now more flexibility reflected in the Council version of the text, or proposal for the text, for member states to implement as they see fit, rather than being dictated to in the way the text was phrased in the original proposal.

The monitoring requirements have also shifted and are more proportional in terms of small agglomerations or water supplies. The group water scheme sector, in particular, is happier with what is being proposed now. Accordingly, as the supplies get smaller, the obligation to monitor has been reduced. We have had ongoing discussions with Irish Water, the National Federation of Group Water Schemes and the EPA. The committee, in its reasoned opinion, mentioned that the standards being proposed went beyond the WHO recommendations. The Council version has shifted back to the WHO standards. Progress has been slow but we would expect that by the end of the Romanian Presidency, there should be a mandate to enter trilogue negotiations.

Does the EPA have any statistics on the extent of unsustainable drinking water and contamination and illness caused by that?

Mr. Darragh Page

It is difficult to trace it directly back to drinking water supplies, particularly public water supplies. We know there have been some concerns in Lough Talt where the supply is on a boil water notice and will remain on one until the supply is upgraded. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre gathers statistics on incidents of illnesses and traces them back to determine where they are associated with water supplies. We have not been made aware of any related to public water supplies. There are incidents that are linked and associated with private wells but not directly with public water supplies that we are aware of.

My next questions are for both Irish Water and the Department. I understand that for public group water schemes there are a few connections that take the water from a public source and distribute it through a network of piping. Where does responsibility lie in that scenario?

Mr. Eamon Gallen

It depends, and I know that is not the answer the Vice Chairman wants to hear. In some cases the local authorities traditionally supplied the water off the public main into the group water scheme free of charge. In some cases, they charge, while in others they do some maintenance and in others they do not do any maintenance. In some cases, there are orphan schemes which were run by a group water scheme but that is no longer the case. We are engaging through the Department with individual schemes. Some schemes want to hand it back, while others want to continue but want work done on the supply we give them.

On general policy, we could not take on 300,000 customers in the morning. We would not be geared and would not have the operational expenditure to manage and maintain a network of that size. Over time, we believe that where group water schemes want us to take them in charge a process and funding will have to be agreed and we are willing to deal with that as we are required. In the meantime, our financial supports go to the group water schemes and the Department can talk about that. Many of them do not want any interference from us. They want to get on and do their own thing.

There are issues related to historical precedent, custom and practice, practicalities and a mixture of all that. We deal with each as best we can. Over the Christmas period, for example, a group water scheme ran out of water and we supplied tankers, even though it was not our network. We cannot run an alternative system without the supporting funding and before we take on a scheme it needs to be brought up to a certain standard. We will not leave anybody stuck. We will work with all the current arrangements but, as matters stand, unless we have taken them in charge, such supplies are the responsibility of the group water scheme.

Mr. Eamonn Waters

The data on quality tend to indicate that it is high in the public group water schemes, which are the ones supplied by Irish Water. It is pretty much on a par with what is there on the public network. In addition, there are funding measures under the rural water programme to support improvements in the infrastructure. Mr. Gallen mentioned schemes that want to be taken in charge by Irish Water. There is a funding stream which covers 100% of the cost of bringing deficient infrastructure up to standard so that it can be taken in charge. In 2018, 21 schemes were taken in charge under that arrangement. The figures for 2016 and 2017 were 13 and 15, respectively. That is in addition to the funding streams available to the private group water schemes and there are significant funding supports available for infrastructural improvements. In addition, the ongoing operational subsidies were significantly improved with effect from 1 January 2018. There are policy mechanisms and funding streams in place to support the quality objectives and to make sure quality and public health issues are addressed.

To follow up on the point made by Senator Conway about rural towns and villages, the only source of funding for them is LIHAF or the town and village renewal scheme. There is no policy in Irish Water such that it will start investing directly in the smaller towns and villages.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

That is part of our draft investment plan. That will be coming into-----

Many rural communities are in trouble. The population is leaving them and the schools are beginning to suffer a fall in numbers. Many of them are on mains water and sewerage but the capacity is gone and there is no new development in these villages. I would be interested to know about the draft policy because a village is unlikely to secure funding under LIHAF because that fund is needed for large-scale developments being used to open up road networks. This means villages rely solely on funding from the town and village renewal scheme to get up and running, which is not appropriate. Maybe Mr. O'Leary can give me something in this draft that will keep me happy today.

Mr. Michael O'Leary

Under the national planning framework, there is a need identified for small rural towns and villages. Under the criteria within the national planning framework, we propose in our investment plan, as drafted, to support the initiative to develop those rural settlements.

Is the guidance on how small villages qualify driven by the local authority?

Mr. Michael O'Leary

Primarily by the local authority.

The local authority will identify where it believes the investment should be made.

Mr. Michael O'Leary


Mr. Eamon Gallen

In addition to what Mr. O'Leary mentioned, and as we referenced in the context of the national water resources plan, we will visit every local authority this year to discuss where it needs investment, additional capacity or the network to be extended. I am not saying that we can address every issue, but we will make at least two visits to every local authority county by county to determine where each believes a need exists. We have developed and published the first round of capacity registers so that local authorities can see exactly what water and wastewater capacity is available in their areas and what plans are in place for upgrades or new plants. As a number of committee members mentioned, there can be a waiting period before a plant is upgraded, which frustrates people. If someone wants to build a house, he or she wants to do so now, not in three years' time. However, all of that will at the very least be transparent. After we have done a tour of the country and spoken to all of the local authorities, we will have a much better idea of the pain points.

I come from the village of Roundwood. It sits on the Vartry reservoir, which I look at every day. It does not have any water, so giving water to Dublin every day of the week when people cannot seem to get a pipe from the reservoir back to Roundwood is difficult for the community to take. That is just another example.

If there are no further questions, I thank the witnesses for attending and engaging with the committee. The committee will now adjourn, with our next meeting to entail the detailed scrutiny of the Anti-Evictions Bill 2018 and the Residential Tenancies (Greater Security of Tenure and Rent Certainty) Bill 2018.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.35 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 February 2019.