Over a decade ago, plans surfaced suggesting Dublin was going to take water from the Shannon. It wasn’t a joke, writes Caroline O’Doherty
It had the makings of an elaborate hoax.
Dublin City Council was proposing to take water from the River Shannon and pump it across the country to feed the taps of the capital where around half of it would disappear through leaks.
Where was a sceptic to begin? Well firstly, it was hard to believe that the modestly sized coastal capital of a rain-soaked island could be short of water.
And secondly, it seemed bizarre that the only option deemed feasible for the home of the Liffey was to take a supply from the Shannon.
As for the ‘pump it to dump it’ scenario of sending expensively sourced water into leaking pipes, the idea looked deliberately designed to feed into every suspicion that ever sneaked into an otherwise trusting mind that the resources of rural Ireland were only there to be plundered for the benefit of the great, good, and greedy up in Dublin.
But the council wasn’t joking. For over 10 years it had been teasing out the implications of a report that warned Dublin needed a major new water source and in 2007 all fingers pointed west. Not so far west as is currently proposed. At the time the focus was on Lough Ree which straddles counties Longford, Roscommon, and Westmeath.
Reaction there was disbelief from many groups who voiced concern about the impact that taking 330m litres of water a day could have on water levels, plant life, animal life, tourism, fishing, and the future development of the region.
Out of a public meeting, the Shannon River Protection Alliance was formed. Local TD Mary O’Rourke was one of the plan’s most vocal opponents, memorably castigating Dubliners for their ‘cavalier’ approach to water wastage while at the same time seemingly happy to leave Westmeath ‘arid’ and ‘desert-like’ through the ‘rape’ of its waters.
Opposition in the area grew and a feasibility study was ordered in 2008. While it was to examine in detail the Lough Ree proposal, it was also tasked with looking at Lough Derg as a possible source, or some combination of Loughs Ree and Derg, either or both linked to a reservoir on a bog near Rochfortbridge, Co Westmeath, or a standalone operation at the Parteen Basin.
By 2010, Lough Ree was off the hook and preference had shifted to Parteen, the lower section of Lough Derg, artificially constructed in the 1920s as part of ESB’s Ardnacrusha hydro-power plant.
It was further away from Dublin, making it a more expensive option financially, but because it was part of a man-made facility that already provided water for power generation, it may have been hoped it would not be so politically costly.
Over the next few years, the council had more assessments carried out but debate on the subject faded, assisted by the economic crisis. Whatever about Dublin’s taps, exchequer funding for major works of infrastructure had run dry.
Since taking over responsibility for water services from the local authorities in 2014, Irish Water has intensified efforts at getting the proposal off the ground.
The utility calls it the ‘Water Supply Project — Eastern and Midlands Region’ but to objectors, that doesn’t disguise the fact that the bulk of the water will go to Dublin, with several communities along the way — notably around Mullingar and Navan — to be served by smaller spin-off pipes.
The utility also terms the proposal “an abstraction of water from a hydro power scheme”, but objectors still see it as plundering a precious natural resource.
Linguistic differences aside, the 20-plus years of contemplation ended last month when Irish Water announced it had completed the last in a series of public consultation exercises and that nothing had cropped up to change its mind about pursuing the Parteen option.
In the last few years, the alliance has been joined by Fight the Pipe, a collection of some of the 500 landowners beneath whose property the pipeline would run, as well as Emma Kennedy, a corporate lawyer specialising in forensic analysis of investment deals who has poured her heart, soul, and mathematically astute brain into dismantling Irish Water’s arguments, not just for the Parteen option, but for any option involving the Shannon.
Kennedy, who is based in Switzerland, became aware of the project when her husband’s family learned that the pipeline would be coming through their farm.
She disputes Irish Water’s calculations for the future water needs in Dublin, accusing the utility and Dublin City Council before it of overstating the risk of shortages.
Given how the city ran short during Storm Emma, that may seem a lost argument, but Kennedy says future needs are based at least partly on industrial production data and treatment plant deficiencies that are now out of date as well as domestic consumption figures that don’t take account of the greater efficiency of new-builds in the use of water and recycling of wastewater.
Kennedy argues that the option of using groundwater and aquifers has not been adequately explored, noting the investigations to date have been desk studies.
She also says the ‘benefit corridor’ — the areas along the pipeline that may benefit from access to it before it reaches Dublin — is overstated and argues that Irish Water is far too defeatist in its attitude towards leak repairs in the capital’s antiquated mains which, everyone agrees, is the main drain on water resources.
She puts leakage in Dublin at 57%. Irish Water says the figure is 38% although it admits that’s only in the mains and doesn’t include leaks on the customer side which Kennedy puts at a further 19%. Either way, there is a colossal amount of water going to waste every day.
That’s all the sides agree on. Irish Water rejects Kennedy’s analysis -— which is available to the public but does not make for easy reading such is the technical nature of the reports she has dissected.
Irish Water must now begin environmental impact assessments to go with its planning application. It says the application will be ready next year but that depends on passage of the Water Environment (Abstractions) Bill which is in the very early stages of drafting.
An Bord Pleanála will deal with the application directly under the strategic infrastructure clause which enables large projects bypass local authority planning departments, but there will be an oral hearing and, if permission is granted, most likely a judicial review and other legal challenges.
So for the moment, the pipe is going nowhere fast but that’s no comfort to objectors. They don’t want it slowed, they want it stopped.
During the latest round of public consultation on the pipeline project, a number of key questions were raised repeatedly. Here’s how Irish Water answered them.
Why doesn’t Irish Water just repair the leaks that are causing Dublin’s shortages?
Irish Water agrees leakage is a huge problem — at least 207m litres, and some say closer to 320m litres, is lost in Dublin every day — but that’s the same argument it uses against relying on a repair programme to protect against shortages.
It says there are just too many leaks, spread over too wide an area to be able to repair in the time required and if repairs were accelerated, the disruption to supplies, traffic, and commerce would be intolerable.
Leakage repair is under way but the Greater Dublin area has 9,000km of pipeline and 650,0000 individual connections so the complexity speaks for itself.
Replacing just 1% of that, as is currently the plan, would equate to 90km of construction works a year, every year for 100 years. In a city setting, that would mean 90km of busy roads, footpaths, and public amenities being torn up. And it still would not save near enough water to meet demand.
The leakage repair programme will run indefinitely but it does not aim to completely eliminate leaks because the bad news is that new leaks appear all the time, often because as each section of worn pipe or faulty joint is repaired, it places greater pressure further along so that another existing leak gets worse or a weak spot produces a fresh leak.
What about desalination as an alternative?
Desalination is the conversion of seawater to drinking water by removing its salt content. It is relatively common, with the International Desalination Association counting 18,423 desalination plants in 150 countries providing 87bn litres of water to 300m people daily.
Irish Water says the idea would be “Dublin-centric” in that it would not address the need for water in midland communities that may also benefit from the Shannon-Dublin pipeline.
The utility has considered desalination, looking at a hypothetical scenario whereby water is taken from the sea off north Co Dublin, requiring an intake pipeline stretching 3km out into the sea and a discharge pipe stretching 2km.
It says that for every litre of freshwater produced, a litre of wastewater, with higher concentrations of salt, must be disposed off back into the sea where it can damage marine life.
Globally, chemists are working to find ways of using the extracted salt as an ingredient for industrial activities rather than disposing of it but Irish Water says desalination also strips water of its mineral content so this must be added back at extra cost and with extra complications when fresh water and former salt water gets mixed in the public mains.
Irish Water says the energy required to run desalination plants is also prohibitive. They are large and complex facilities and Irish Water says it would take six times more energy to run a desalination plant than a conventional water treatment plant although that is also a downside that engineers globally are trying to address through development of solar-powered processing.
What about all the rain we don’t catch — couldn’t we build reservoirs?
Early on in the hunt for a new water source for Dublin, consideration was given to taking water from Lough Derg in times of flood and storing it in a reservoir on a former peat production site at Garryhinch bog.
Water would be stored here in its raw form before being pumped along a 60km pipeline to Dublin for treatment and distribution.
Investigations threw up issues with the stability of the ground and concerns about contamination risks in pumping untreated water over a long distance.
Building a treatment plant beside the reservoir was considered but it was felt it would produce a lot of wastewater that would have to be released into the River Barrow, a Special Area of Conservation.
On the plus side, it was thought a high flow of water could be maintained through Garryhinch for 10 months of the year, falling only during two summer months, and the reservoir could store two months’ worth of Dublin’s water needs at any given time if a problem arose.
The cost of the project was less than other options, would inconvenience fewer landowners, and, if the water was treated locally, it could be used to supply midland communities in the same way as the Parteen Basin option.
That idea, though not necessarily in that location, is still favoured by some objectors to the Parteen option, who point out a new reservoir in the Midlands could also serve as a public leisure amenity for watersports.
Irish Water turned that argument on its head, saying the very reason it wants to use Parteen Basin is to give it dual purpose. It was created to serve the hydropower plant at Ardnacrusha and could be supplying drinking water too without building any new storage facilities.
What about getting water from underground?
Groundwater and aquifers are already used by Irish Water in many locations across the country and opponents of the Parteen Basin option argue Dublin should do likewise.
They say not only is the water locally available, dispensing with the need for long pipelines, but the sources can be built up gradually in multiple locations, each one boosting supplies as it comes on stream without having to wait for completion of one megaproject.
Irish Water says this option was explored by Dublin City Council in 2008 when all sources within an 80km radius of Dublin were examined. In total 19, significant aquifers were identified but, according to the survey, the total maximum amount of water they could collectively supply daily would be 475m litres so most would need to run simultaneously to make up the 330m extra Dublin needed for future growth.
Other challenges were highlighted: The risk of leaving outlying areas already using the aquifers short of supply, sprawling development making access to the sites harder, concerns for the impact on neighbouring rivers, the complexities of constructing and running multiple wells and pipelines simultaneously, and the legal uncertainty surrounding water abstraction.
Given all the barriers, only six offered a realistic prospect of development and combined they were estimated to have a potential supply of just 125m litres daily.
The consultants concluded: “It is not certain that current legal, regulatory, planning and administration systems and the level of political maturity in the state would be able to cope with the scale of such a proposal in the immediate future.”
Pipeline objectors point out that the investigations were only desk studies and say practical on-site explorations should be undertaken.
Tountinna hill, when the clouds allow, provides a spectacular point from which to take in the beauty of the Shannon River where it forms Lough Derg, and the Parteen Basin below.
When the clouds are feeling especially generous, it’s also possible to see all four surrounding counties of Tipperary, Limerick, Clare, and Galway.
The serene, green landscape is worlds away from the chaos, congestion, and clamour of Dublin and it only serves to emphasise just how far geographically the two regions are apart.
But it also acts as a symbol of the gulf of trust that exists between Irish Water and the people whose water the utility wants to take, and whose land it wants to control, all apparently in the cause of serving the capital.
“There is a huge lack of trust,” says Rita Ryan who, with her husband Joe, runs the Whiskey Still pub and restaurant in Dromineer, one of the numerous picturesque villages that dot the lake’s shores, where small businesses depend on it remaining a beguiling tourist attraction and healthy watersports amenity.
“Once Irish Water get the right to take the water, how much are they going to take?” she asks.
“They tell us they’ll only take so much but I don’t think anyone believes that. If Dublin dries up in a drought, are they going to tell the politicians up there that there’s water in Lough Derg and they can’t take it? I don’t think so.”
Irish Water says it will only take 2% of the water that is already diverted to ESB’s Ardnacrusha hydropower plant and that it will be bound by an agreement with ESB so it can not make ad hoc decisions.
But opponents say that 2% will actually become 15% of the lake’s volume in dry spells when levels are naturally lower, and no agreement is in place yet for the public to see or scrutinise, so Rita, and many like her, are not convinced.
Mistrust characterised relations from the start — since before Irish Water took over as the national utility, when the pipeline project was being promoted by Dublin City Council.
“I remember going to my first meeting about it, about eight years ago, and coming away thinking, they don’t want to know about us down the country.
“It was all about what industry they need in Dublin and what services they wanted to develop and how water was going to be very important to them. But what about industry for us? What about our tourism, our development? Not a word.”
It doesn’t help that Irish Water, despite being a national utility, has failed to convince people in the area that its bias isn’t towards Dublin.
Jerry Grant, managing director of Irish Water, was managing director of RPS Consulting when that company, on behalf of Dublin City Council, developed the idea of the pipeline as the solution to the capital’s water woes.
Gerry Geoghegan, now senior project manager with Irish Water, was also project manager for the pipeline proposal when he worked with RPS.
From Irish Water’s perspective, it may be a gift to have two senior staff members who know the project so well, but opponents question if the utility can be fully objective about it.
Irish Water can provide copious engineering and other technical reports from consultancy firms other than RPS to support the merits of the project, but opponents point out that many of those reports predate the utility’s establishment and so were commissioned by Dublin City Council which, understandably, had the capital’s interests at heart.
“We need an independent review of the whole project because there is huge mistrust here,” says Declan Collison of Lough Derg House guesthouse and the Lake Cafe in Dromineer.
“Bring somebody in from outside the country — Holland or Denmark say — and let them look at this, because the way it looks to us is that so much work has gone into justifying this project that everyone is afraid to say, actually we got it wrong.”
Declan shares the concerns of Rita and others that the Shannon and Lough Derg will be damaged by the daily water abstraction — and plant life, animals, and tourism along with it.
But he is also alarmed by the scale of the planned expenditure and what the taxpayer can expect in return.
“Spending €1.3bn on capital costs and probably €20m a year on running costs after that is bad value for money. It would be 10 years before even one litre of water landed in Dublin and at huge economic cost to people.
“What if the town of Nenagh or Athlone wants to attract a large industry that needs access to a large volume of water? Irish Water would have the say over this.
“I am not anti-Dublin but there is a huge imbalance in this. The Government talks about balancing regional development but all the development is in the greater Dublin area.”
For Declan, the debate begins and ends with the leaks in Dublin’s pipes.
“If I owned a warehouse and I wanted you to invest in it but I told you that every night more than half of my stock would be pilfered, you would not invest in my business.”
He sympathises with Dublin business owners who would suffer massive disruption if an intensive leak repair programme was undertaken, but he says they have to face reality.
“The pipes in Dublin are going to have to be replaced sooner rather than later. I would rather that the Government spent €3bn-€4bn now and start that project than spend €1.4bn on a project that will not give them a solution.
At Clareen Country Creche a few miles away, Una Merry suggests putting her young charges on the job.
“I have three-year-olds here and if you give them a bucket with a hole in it and tell them to keep it filled with water, they’ll tell you there’s no point because the water’s only disappearing out the bottom,” she sighs.
Location is her business’s selling point. The creche has a big enclosed playground with a roofed section so that children can still get out on rainy days. Surrounding it is a sea of green with a copse of trees, a ringfort, a duckpond, and fields where energetic little feet can run free.
But behind the hedgerow of the nearest field is where the pipe will run.
“I can’t imagine the dust and noise and the heavy machinery going through here. It will go across the road too, so I don’t know how parents will have access,” she says.
“They might go through quickly but they want possession of the land for three years so I won’t be able to give guarantees about anything for three years.
“I would have great fears that it would put us out of business.” Liam Minehan, who farms at Puckane, a few kilometres inland from the lake, is facing disruption to his dairy herd because the pipe will bisect his land.
“Well, it won’t. Because it’s not going ahead,” he states.
Liam is spokesman for the Fight The Pipe campaign, representing landowners whose property is on the pipe’s route. Based on other projects involving gas pipes, landowners could be in line for compensation of €70-€100 per linear metre, but Liam doesn’t want to hear about it.
“People will say, isn’t it all about money at the end of the day? Aren’t you fighting this because you want more compensation? That drives me mad. We don’t want compensation because we don’t want the pipe.”
Besides, he says, how could money compensate for damage unknown.
“When you disturb soil, you don’t know the long-term effects. My grandfather took out hedgerows 80 years ago and I can still follow the line of it.
“Irish Water says the land will be reinstated. That means they’ll cover the pipe with soil. But what about the soil that’s compacted by the heavy machinery going forward and back? What about drainage? And what happens when they have to dig it up again because there’s a leak?
“If you’re a farmer and you want to put up a building, or a house for your son, you’ll have to ask Irish Water for permission because they’ll have a permanent wayleave.”
Irish Water doesn’t disagree. In a statement it said: “There will be restrictions on building development and forestry within the permanent wayleave.”
Liam says he won’t be the worst affected. He knows of one farmer whose land would be subject to compulsory purchase order and/or permanent wayleave for the fourth time because of roads and other projects.
“A lot of the farmers here already had land taken for the motorway. There wasn’t the same opposition to that but then it’s very hard for me to argue against a road because you can see it’s needed. But it’s very hard for me to embrace that my farm is going to be desecrated for a whim.”
Which leads to another thing driving objectors mad.
“They want to give us a consolation prize of a cycleway,” says Donal Whelan of the River Shannon Protection Alliance.
“Someone even suggested fencing it off so that people could cycle all the way along the pipe route from here to Dublin. The consternation that suggestion caused — I couldn’t tell you the language used. It’d be great for tourism, we were told. Well, thanks very much but the Shannon is great for tourism and that’s why we want to protect it.”
None of those who spoke had any faith in the impending environmental impact assessment process or the planning application procedure to fully air their concerns.
“The planning process is too restrictive. It can’t adjudicate on the politics behind the project,” says Liam Minehan.
“And will it ask the right questions? Like why is the motorway going in one direction to Dublin and the pipeline taking an entirely different route? What’s really going on?”
“The environmental impact is guesswork to an extent,” says Declan Collison.
“All we know is that when man interferes with nature, there are usually consequences that we can’t control.”
Alliance chairman, Gerry Siney, from Limerick, has concerns for what will happen to the Shannon Estuary and Limerick Port.
“If there isn’t sufficient flow, it will not clear the shipping channel and it will silt up,” he says.
“Ships won’t get further than Foynes.” His biggest fear is that the Shannon could become a river that no longer reaches the sea.
“It breaks my heart at times because it’s the majestic River Shannon. It’s our job to protect it, not kill it.”
It is hard to visualise a construction that would largely be hidden underground but on pipe size alone, the Shannon-Dublin water supply project makes it one of the most ambitious the country has ever seen.
According to the latest information from Irish Water, the pipe would comfortably accommodate a standing male of 6ft 5in although he’d have to crouch down a bit in the earliest section.
Earlier drawings of the pipe had bigger dimensions, showing the diameter ranging from 1.7m to 2.3m but even at the revised estimates, that’s among the largest diameter pipes in use in the water, gas, or oil industries anywhere in the world.
Irish Water says there are some water pipes of 1.6m in diameter in use in Kildare but over a relatively short distance. By comparison, Irish natural gas, which has one of the most extensive networks in the country, uses pipes that are 0.5m to 1m in diameter.
At 172km, it would be well short of the longest water pipelines in the world but those that gain attention for their scale tend to be serving desert or drought-afflicted zones that have no other water source nearby.
We don’t yet know what the pipe would be made of. Irish Water says it is looking at concrete, steel, iron, and various types of plastic and a decision would be made closer to contract tender stage.
The pipe would start south of the Parteen Basin where the water is diverted to ESB’s Ardnacrusha hydropower plant, and where a pumping station would be developed to extract the raw water.
A major new water treatment plant would be built at nearby Birdhill and from that point on, the water would be tap-ready. A second pumping station would be incorporated into the treatment plant to send the water on its way to Dublin.
At Cloughjourdan, about 40km away, a break pressure tank would be installed at what would be the highest point on the pipeline and at this spot, pumping would stop and the flow of the water would be fuelled by gravity.
Apart from some spur pipes that may be added for future possible use in supplying some Midland communities, the idea is there would be no further interruption in the flow until the water reaches Dublin.
It would arrive at a reservoir to be built at Peamount on the edge of south Co Dublin and from there would run through pipes that would be integrated with the existing water supply network serving the Greater Dublin area.
That all sounds straightforward but the reality on the ground would be very different. Aside from the human opposition, the landscape throws up considerable challenges.
The pipeline route — chosen, according to Irish Water, to minimise obstacles and disruption — will nonetheless encounter railway lines, a canal, and a major river. Ironically it’s the River Liffey, smaller rivers and streams, a motorway, national primary routes, many local roads, and the properties of 500 individual landowners.
It would have to negotiate a wide variety of ground, from road fill to farmland to bogland to the saturated ground beneath rivers.
It would lie in trenches up to 4m deep to ensure stability and protection while at the same time enabling the infrastructure to be accessed reasonably easily if needed for repair.
Landowners would be asked to give up a 50m strip of their property during the construction period — possibly for three years — and then to agree to a permanent wayleave of 20m.
The route, and various parts of it, have been altered many times already but while the 500 landowners who could most expect to be affected have been notified, there is a chance some more modifications could be made.
Irish Water said: “We will continue to consider requests [for changes] right up to the planning stage.”