14 Mar

What is going on with my water?


It all seems entirely counter intuitive that we get a massive downpour of rain and snow and yet we have to face water restrictions. This quick guide will explain why – it is not as simple as you may think!

Why the water restrictions?

There are a number of reasons for this. First, the cold weather has a more severe impact on old pipes causing them to burst. Ireland is still getting up to speed understanding the details of our network and is undertaking the largest projects ever in the state to chart our network – which has never been done before.

But I heard it is because our reservoirs were running low

Yes. This is a dimension of the challenge – wasteful use of water. Without a premise metering programme linked to bills, people will have no incentive to conserve water or to not run pipes to prevent leaks. Furthermore, just because we get our fair share of rain doesn’t mean water is always readily available.

Think of our system like a 20-litre bucket. If you pour 100 litres into it, you’re still left with 20 litres. This is what has happened in the past few days: as snow melts and rain falls, we don’t have the capacity to store this for people to wastefully use over the same period.

So is it just bad pipes and wasteful people?

No. Even with perfect pipes and metering, we would probably still face issues in the current system. When there is a severe weather event like the one we just had, the catchment or system that transports water to the sea comes under increasing pressure.

How does that affect water coming out of my tap?

A lot of nutrients – traditionally from intensive agriculture – gets washed off the land and into the rivers, streams and lakes. This in turn causes things like algae blooms, like the one we are seeing in the Varty reservoir. These blooms suck a lot of the dissolved oxygen out of the water, which can cause fish to die and bring about other environmental challenges. Supply is often restricted as these algae clog up the treatment system.

Just algae then?

Not just algae. The levels of nutrients in water are controlled by water quality standards. They can be hazardous to humans so measures (which are expensive) must be taken to remove them. Also, waste by product from animals or humans can cause disease outbreaks like cryptosporidium.

Humans as well as animals?

Yes, and this is where it can get a bit tricky. Untreated manure from a handful of cows entering a river or lake can be the equivalent of 100,000 people’s worth of treated raw sewerage in terms of quality. So, 10 or 20 cows’ worth of manure washed into a river may have the same impact as all the treated sewage from Dublin. This is often difficult to quantify in individual cases because it depends on the flow, mix and background levels in the river or lake. Think of it like Ribena in a glass, it depends on the amount of water you put in, whether the water or Ribena goes in first and the shape of the glass.

When there is a severe weather event, a lot of waste can be washed into rivers and lakes – basically the same effect as a power washer compared to a regular hose.

But sewage is still treated, so why humans?

Historically, waste treatment systems were built to treat both sewage from homes and businesses as well as the water collected from run off on roads and paths. These are called Combined Sewer Systems. When there is heavy rainfall, a treatment plant can’t cope with the volume of water so must open the pipes to discharge directly to the waterbody to prevent the plant from being damaged. The problem is all the water is mixed so you can’t segregate the raw sewage from the runoff water.

Hold on, why would you treat runoff, is it not just rain?

For the same reasons as above. Runoff can contain a lot of nasty things from animals, but also oil, petrol, metals and hydrofluorocarbons (little things that break off tyres as they are worn). On the modern motorway network you will see little lakes beside the road called attenuation ponds. These take the water that runs off from the roads and lets these nasties settle there before being discharged. Unfortunately, runoff from the other roads don’t have this mechanism in place.

Modern water networks and infrastructure projects aim to fix the challenge of combined sewer systems, but unless you have a lot of money to do this it is not going to happen.

So what do we do?

Unfortunately, almost every expert in the water management field agrees that things are going to get worse. This is because water is the number one multiplier of climate change. That means water is how we are going to feel the effects of climate change first. The rest of the world is faced with these challenges as well as the balance of promoting conservation versus increasing costs (i.e. how is it that I use less but I’m charged more?) Of course, in Ireland, we are much further behind that so the fact is the problem is only going to get worse for us before it gets better.

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