Water security - Initiatives are late but still welcome

NOWHERE is our dysfunctional relationship with our environment more obvious than in our polluted and greatly abused waterways.

Most are just dirty, more are heavily polluted because we casually and shamefully use them as out-of-sight, out-of-mind dumps.

Some have become festering drains that bear no resemblance to what they should be or once were.

Others are being choked by algal bloom, which thrives in waters enriched by introduced nutrients.

Others — loughs Mask, Corrib, Leine, Carra, Conn, Derg, Ree and Currane are just a few of them — are being choked by either alien plants like Canadian pond weed, molluscs like zebra mussels or bog standard pollution caused by human activities.

Yesterday Environment Minister John Gormley, responding to long-running cases and European Court of Justice infringement proceedings under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, moved to address this central issue.

The case is about the failure to provide towns with populations of more than 15,000 with secondary waste water treatment facilities by the end of 2000 as required by the urban waste water treatment directive.

Though the European Commission has focused on Bray, Shangannagh, Howth, Sligo, Tramore and Letterkenny there are many, many more towns with smaller populations — Oughterard in Galway and Crossmolina in Mayo for instance — that urgently need new water treatment facilities. In so many instances public infrastructure has not kept pace with private development. In too many instances water treatment plants have to cope with multiples of the population they were designed to serve.

Mr Gormley acknowledged that the case highlighted the need for investment in water services. He also acknowledged that these cases should have been resolved a long time ago but insisted that the Government was working towards “addressing the deficiencies identified in the case”.

Anything, or anyone, who is prepared to try to ensure that we have a secure supply of clean drinking water, enough water to sustain industry and development and the possibility of rejuvenated waterways should be encouraged and listened to. To this end the minister committed himself to continued investment in water, though how he might fund it he did not say.

He also, commendably, strengthened the hand of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by giving it a supervisory role in all of the country’s public water supply systems to ensure consistent and systematic supervision and enforcement. The EPA has extensive powers of direction and intervention.

In another initiative the minister will oblige local authorities to publish up-to-date information on drinking water quality in their areas. This is entirely welcome though it would have been even more reassuring if a third party did the assessments and published the information. As we have shown in so many other spheres we do not do self-regulation as well as we might.

Mr Gormley is to be encouraged in these efforts, especially if he brings a badly needed sense of urgency to the area. And, as we said earlier this week, his hand would be greatly strengthened if he had a ring-fenced budget for water infrastructure. It is difficult to see, in this economic climate, how that can be achieved without water charges.

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