Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Water and Sewerage Schemes Provision

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to take this important issue. We are facing into the implementation of a new multi-annual rural water programme between 2019 and 2021. I seek a proper water connection for households in Downpatrick, Furmoyle, and Carramore, which is a townland in Ballycastle, County Mayo, in order that they have water they can drink, wash their clothes in and use for showers which, sadly, has been lacking for many years. They have made a case for this for years.

I welcome the new multi-annual programme and the sensible inclusion of measure 6, which provides for community connections. Downpatrick, in particular, has had a very raw deal because for many years the area has fallen outside of the criteria. Last year, it was deemed ineligible because to provide a scheme it would have to be first built and then connected to a public mains operated by Irish Water. There was no provision for that option in the criteria but the issue has been addressed this year. I am hopeful that the scheme will get the green light and that funding of €229,500, which is needed to deliver it, can be put in place and allocated. This would serve a total of 17 domestic connections.

The problem is that people have tried in vain for years to drill wells to get water from other sources. There is a problem, although not a pollution problem - with the ground conditions in the area. There is a lot of iron in the water and naturally occurring arsenic, and, therefore, one cannot drink the water, which is red in colour. One could not wash one's clothes in the water either. There is a manual pump located in the village of Ballycastle where people get water to use in their homes, which is unbelievable in this day and age. Other than that they have to buy water to drink.

When one considers the debate that pertained regarding the equity of treatment of all citizens of the State in respect of water services, it is imperative that such projects be funded in order that people have access to water. When the debate raged about whether citizens should pay for their water, these households were not shy in coming forward and asking, "Will you give this cheque to the Minister and tell him that I will pay for my water?" These people are at their wit's end and have spent loads of money yet they still do not have a water supply.

Equally, Carramore has approximately 18 houses. They have made a separate application from the Downpatrick scheme. They are equally in a dilemma and they have nowhere to turn if the State will not help them. I ask that the scheme be given priority.

Finally, I refer to Furmoyle. I know from my own background work that there is an issue with the cost per unit. It is considered too costly under the current criteria. That is not the problem or fault of the households because the additional cost arises as a result of dispersed housing and the ground conditions, including the mix of rock, bedrock and topography. More engineering works must be carried out to deliver the schemes, which is more costly. If we are serious about providing water to households across the country, regardless of whether they are urban or rural, this matter must be addressed and additional funds must be put in place to support communities. These communities are coming to the State as a last resort. If they could drill their own wells, they would and get a satisfactory water supply but, unfortunately, they cannot do so. This is a problem and it is up to us to sort it. This problem is experienced by people in Counties Mayo and Galway, in particular, because of our rural populations and they need help. I ask that these schemes be prioritised as we look forward to the announcement of the multi-annual funding, which I believe will be in late April or May. These communities really need some good news.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and I am happy to respond on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. The Government is committed to ensuring that the people of rural Ireland are supported in accessing good quality water and wastewater services.

On 8 February 2019, the Minister announced a new investment programme for water services in rural areas - the Multi-annual Rural Water Programme 2019-2021. Capital funding of €23 million has been provided in 2019, an increase of €3 million from 2018 in the previous programme. On 8 February 2019, local authorities were also invited to submit their bids to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government for the funding of schemes or projects in their functional areas, with the deadline for receipt of proposals set as 14 March 2019.

I understand that Mayo County Council has included Downpatrick Head in its bid applications to the Department under measure 6 - community connection (water and wastewater) networks - of the multi-annual programme. The Department is currently considering the applications received from local authorities and an expert panel has been put in place to support the evaluation process. In addition to providing an expert perspective, the panel brings independence, openness and transparency to the bid evaluation process, which is undertaken on a national prioritised basis. The expert panel's membership includes departmental, stakeholder and independent representation. The panel will make recommendations to the Department on the suitability of schemes and projects for funding based on objective criteria, which are set out in the framework document. The Department will consider the recommendations of the panel and, based on these, will propose allocations for consideration by the Minister. He expects the process to be completed in the second quarter of 2019.

A proposed Furmoyle group water scheme was included in the bids by the Mayo County Council in 2016, under the previous multi-annual funding cycle, at a unit cost of €22,000 per house.

The panel assembled by the Department to review the bid concluded that the cost of the proposed scheme was excessive and did not recommend it for funding. The Department understands from the council that the situation has remained unchanged and the council did not include the proposed Furmoyle scheme in its recent bids under the current funding cycle. I do not have a response with regard to Carramore, which was mentioned by the Senator, but I will ask the Department to come back to her directly.

It is important to note that households that cannot access a group water scheme or a public supply through the Irish Water network have other alternatives to improve their domestic water supply, if necessary. The individual wells grant under the Department's rural water programme can be accessed through the council to assist with the provision or necessary improvement of an individual water supply to households.

Following the review of rural water services put in place by the Minister in 2018, he also announced improvements to the grants available to private well owners in February 2019. These are to take effect from the end of April in a few weeks. The maximum grant for refurbishment works to a domestic well will increase from €2,031 to €3,000. A new and additional provision is included for a maximum grant of €5,000 where a new well is required as an exceptional measure. I hope this clarifies matters regarding the group water schemes identified.

I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to revert to me regarding Carramore. I appreciate that. I have hope. There have been several schemes in Mayo and every time they change the rules, one scheme gets brought into the net. It has been very piecemeal but it will make a big difference for the people concerned. All of us can agree that in this day and age, having to bring water to one's house, drawing it in the way I have described and living with that for years and years is not an easy way to live, particularly for older people and people with children. It is an essential commodity we all take for granted and I would like some fair play for these households.

I concur wholeheartedly with the Senator. I come from a rural part of Galway that still has issues with water supply. I am working hard within the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment on broadband for rural areas. We say this is an essential but there are still places in the country where we do not have a potable water supply and security. This is something we must address. I appreciate that and I know that with regard to Kilreekil, County Galway, which still does not have a supply, another group water scheme from Cappataggle has generously allowed its water to be supplied to the other community. All of the due diligence is being done on that. We need to fill the remaining gaps in water supply. The Senator has a particular interest in one or two schemes where water supply through the well might not be available so this might be something that could be looked at between the council and the Department.

Given priority perhaps.

I will not take on too much licence on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I will bring back the Senator's concerns in view of the fact that water supply from the well is not safe and potable. I will ask the Minister or his officials to talk to Mayo County Council about that.

The Senator hit the nail on the head when she mentioned paying for water and water charges. We still need to understand that there are some people in this country who would love to be able to pay for the supply of water if they could get hold of it and that is a problem. Even though the country gets so much rain, we still do not have potable water in certain areas. However, significant efforts have been made over decades. I compliment the group water schemes for what they have done for rural Ireland and the leadership they have shown throughout the years. We will continue to work on that.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.