As far back as 1972, anglers on the Corrib system were warning that all was not well but nothing was done. It has taken 35 years and the contamination of tap water used by households for reality to strike.
We seem to have plenty of rules and regulations governing water and other environmental matters, but not enough in the way of follow-ups by way of monitoring and enforcement.
Another key issue is that while councils have facilitated massive growth in housing, sewage facilities have not kept pace.
According to Galway mayor Niall Ó Brolchain the Oughterard treatment plant, which discharges barely-treated sewage into Lough Corrib, has not been updated for 30 years, despite huge population expansion.
The mayor said it was “appalling” that contaminated water was going through inadequate treatment plants.
Environment Minister Dick Roche has announced that monitoring and supervision of water supplies will be prioritised under new regulations.
A big problem is that many local authorities have poor records in relation to monitoring water.
Hopefully, we are about to enter a new era and that the days of a slipshod, if not downright negligent, approach are behind us.
A crucial lesson from the crisis is that all councils need to have approved monitoring plans in place and that such plans are put into effect regularly and consistently.
“The regulations are intended to ensure that firm action can be taken to bring all local authorities to a consistent and satisfactory level of performance in this respect,” says the latest issue of Rural Water News.
That great word “transparency” also comes into play and the county councils will be obliged to make monitoring records available to the public. Group water schemes will also be affected as the duty of every water supplier to ensure a clean water supply is set out clearly.
Schemes will also be obliged to keep records, as well as a record of any incident affecting supply.
The annual Sherkin Island Marine Station conference, in Cork, has the uncanny knack of focusing on issues that are relevant to a particular time. This year’s gathering was, aptly enough, all about the enforcement of environmental regulations.
Matt Murphy, the station’s director, seems to have the gift of prophecy on many environmental issues. Years ago, he was warning about coming crises in regard to water quality and waste management. But, typically enough, nobody in authority was taking heed.
At the recent conference, he said the EPA’s work on enforcement was merely the “tip of the iceberg” in the many issues relating to the protection of the environment.
Among the issues he referred to were septic tank systems, with particular reference to sites, installation, maintenance and monitoring of tanks. Pollution in rivers and lakes also needed major monitoring programmes, he felt.
Mr Murphy suggested that water meters should be installed in every house to reduce water wastages. This suggestion, however, is unlikely to find favour with politicians as it would inevitably result in charges.
One of the speakers at the Sherkin conference was EPA director general Dr Mary Kelly who said that, despite huge investment in environmental infrastructure, Ireland was still playing catch-up.
While there had been some measurable improvements, she felt under investment in waste water treatment and drinking water treatment had left us in a catch-up situation.
“This investment needs to continue until all drinking water treatment plans, urban waste water treatment plans and waste management facilities are operating to the standards demanded by Irish citizens and required by the EU,” Dr Kelly said.
Meanwhile, it looks as if boil-the-water warnings will be in place in Galway for some time, amid news that it could be September before tap water is drinkable again.