THE range of weather Ireland has experienced in the last 10 months has put water infrastructure under severe pressure and authorities are being “pushed to the limit” to maintain a decent supply.
That’s the warning from Neil Smyth, Asset Operation Lead for Irish Water in Cork, who said the exceptional dry spell has highlighted wider issues in the water system, as a hosepipe ban came into effect in Cork today.
“This is the third major crisis that we have had within nine months,” Mr Smyth told the Evening Echo.
“It started with Ophelia. That was an extraordinary event for us and some of us thought that we would be retired before the next thing like that would happen.
“And then the snow and Storm Emma came along which was, in some ways, an equally challenging period and now we find ourselves in a drought comparable with, and possibly worse, than 1976.
“So it is an extraordinary period of frequent, extreme weather events that put major stress on our water infrastructure which is in need of serious investment. Where things are stretched, this really highlights the problems we have.”
Irish Water is already intervening in several areas in the county and many more are being closely monitored.
“We have several schemes in difficulty and about a dozen tankers operating across the county in north and west Cork,” Mr Smyth said.
“We are also carrying out night-time restrictions. We throttle back or completely shut off flows at night time in order to build up supply in the reservoir so we have a better pressure and volume of water available during the day.
“We are also intensively doing leak detection and repair and trying to get every leak fixed as quickly as possible.
“An awful lot of what we are doing, particularly tankering water from one scheme to another, is not sustainable. We are taking it from schemes that we know have capacity but we will have to stop at some point. Those are the challenges we are facing in the short term.
“Cork County Council are working extremely hard with us to maintain supplies, to find and repair leaks and to manage the logistics around restriction and the transport of water to where it is needed.”
The Catch-22 they face is that water consumption naturally rises during hot weather, for a variety of reasons. Clonakilty, one of the schemes considered at-risk, has seen a 15% rise since this hot spell began.
Cork city is in a better position than many areas but Mr Smyth warns that is no reason for people to ignore the appeals for conservation.
“The situation is stable in the city supply and there is no immediate risk but the Inniscarra lake has dropped by two feet in the last month,” he said. “Glashaboy and the Lee Road are also being monitored and are stable. We are lucky in Cork but we can’t be complacent.”
While people flock to beaches and parks to soak up the sun, Irish Water’s focus is on their raw material.
“We are monitoring water supplies, the water levels in boreholes and rivers and lakes, and in all cases the water is dropping,” Mr Smyth said.
“So the water we are treating and putting into distribution today, without significant rainfall later in the summer, will affect overall water resources going into the winter.”
That is why it is so important that people follow the instructions to limit their usage wherever possible. It is not merely a question of water access in the coming weeks but toward the end of the year.
“When it starts to rain, it will take at least a week of solid rain for the ground to become saturated,” Mr Smyth said.
“The ground is so dry now that any rain that falls will be absorbed by the soil and it is only after that that surface water will start to replenish with further rain. The drop of rain that came on Wednesday night was welcome for plants and grass but does nothing to restore the stock of water.
“Our key message in this is while we are doing everything we can on the supply side, we urge everyone to be mindful of the critical situation we are in whenever they go to use water. Every little bit people do helps to alleviate the pressure on the water resources.”
By conserving water, he hopes people can help prevent current special interventions, such as the nighttime restrictions, becoming a medium-to-long-term feature of life.
“Such a dry period puts a tremendous strain on water and extends how long before things are restored to normal,” Mr Smyth said.
“The risk here is that we might never catch up and will be continuing with water difficulties and restrictions late into the summer and autumn and possible into the winter. It becomes a never-ending cycle. The potential is there unless we get control of the demand.”