Certain words and terminologies can become so ubiquitous that we might easily overlook the depth of their meaning. For instance, regular readers of Rural Water News will have seen the phrase ‘the community-owned and community-run group water scheme sector’ adorn these pages on countless occasions.
‘Community-owned and community-run’ is a perfect example of an expression that has been used for so long, we can sometimes forget its connotation. In one sense, ‘community’ can be geographically defined. Each individual group water scheme is owned and operated by members within a certain locality; a community of happenstance, dictated by virtue of who happens to live in an area.
However, ‘community’, in regard to the GWS sector is moreso defined by a common ethos and by shared values. ‘Volunteerism’, ‘pride of place, ‘co-operation’, ‘legacy’ and ‘sense of ownership’ are just some of the characteristics that underpin the GWS community as a whole.
It’s a ‘community’ that cannot be explained by simple cartographic boundaries, and this was glaringly evident at May’s conference of the Alliance of Community-Owned Water Services in Europe (ACOWAS-EU).
ACOWAS-EU is an informal network of community-owned drinking water and wastewater services that are in operation across Europe. If you thought the GWS sector was unique to Ireland, then think again. ACOWAS-EU brings together similar movements from Austria; Denmark; Finland; Italy; and Galicia, an autonomous community in northern Spain.
While these nations’ community-owned drinking water supplies (CoDWS) may not be called ‘group water schemes’, they share the same co-operative ethos, many of the same virtues and, indeed, the same challenges as the GWS sector in Ireland.
Three representatives from the NFGWS attended the recent conference in Upper Austria, which was hosted by OÖ WASSER, one of four representative bodies for CoDWS in Austria. The main focus of the conference was the transposition of the recast EU Drinking Water Directive (DWD) and its ramifications for the CoDWS sector.
While Ireland had already transposed the DWD into national legislation in March, the more complex legislative structures in other ACOWAS-EU countries had caused some delays.
The new monitoring parameters and the requirements related to ‘materials and substances in contact with drinking water’ were two key talking points for everyone in attendance. The financial implications of the new DWD was also a pressing topic — state financial support is minimal in some of the GWS sector’s European counterparts.
Regarding, new parameters, per- and poly-fluoroalkylated substances (PFAs) were given particular attention, thanks to a presentation from the Upper Austrian Department of Water Management.
PFAs are a very large group of man-made chemicals (there are at least 5,000), that are found in everyday products, cosmetics, water-proofs, and fire-fighting foam. Their inclusion in the recast DWD dictates that member states must ensure compliance with PFAs limits by January 2026. However, technical guidance regarding PFAs monitoring is still in development by the European Commission.
Analytical methods for 20 PFAs have been developed and utilised as part of a nationwide groundwater monitoring programme in Austria. Thankfully, over 99% of monitoring points were under threshold levels but there were some hotspots identified.
Comprehensive treatment methods are also urgently needed, with Danish representatives informing the conference that trials are ongoing in some supplies in Denmark. Given their complexity, along with the fact that water suppliers are at the end of chain, a holistic strategy will be essential to mitigating PFAs contamination in drinking water.
The conference also provided a chance for ACOWAS-EU to discuss future opportunities and challenges for their respective CoDWS. Although NFGWS representatives may have been more than 2,000km away from home, it was a similar conversation to those being had at every GWS meeting around Ireland.
The age profile of CoDWS board members, gender balance, waning volunteerism levels, and the need to improve levels of engagement of local members; these were key concerns across every region.
The value of such ACOWAS-EU meetings shone through, as attendees discussed personal experiences and shared advice on what has worked well in their own respective countries.
Regarding the recruitment of new board/committee members, it was the shared experience that CoDWS who approached pairs or trios of individuals enjoyed more success than when trying to encourage one person to get involved on their own. Interestingly, Austrian CoDWS place a more significant emphasis on identifying candidates based on skillset. Engineers, plumbers, electricians and managers are integral to the make-up of volunteer boards.
Looking towards the future, attendees all agreed that it is essential that every CoDWS focuses on ensuring at least one of their board/committee members has particular expertise in communications.
Alongside the boardroom sessions, OÖ WASSER, arranged a number of visits to different water co-operatives (WG) in Upper Austria. WWG St. Oswald was the first port-of-call, a CoDWS that provides drinking water to circa 2,000 people in the village of Sankt Oswald.
Founded in the 1940s, it is a co-op that is still welcoming around 50 new household connections per year. We visited two of its 18 abstraction points – a protected spring and a nearby 60 metre-deep borewell. Virtually all drinking water supplies in Austria have groundwater or spring sources; the idea of surface water abstraction appeared alien to most.
Given the high quality of Austria’s groundwater, many drinking water supplies need very little treatment. Water from the WWG St Oswald spring source requires a simple limestone filtration process to raise its pH levels.
This is then followed by UV treatment as a precautionary measure. Indeed, UV is the only disinfection show in town for drinking water suppliers in Austria. Such is the standard of source water, the complete absence of chlorination is another variance from drinking water treatment processes in Ireland.
Our next stop was Dingdorf, some 60km away. Dingdorf-Abwasser is both a drinking water and wastewater co-operative. Although it also boasts pristine drinking water quality, it is one of many co-operatives that have experienced the impact of climate change.
Following a drought period, analysis of its 60 metre-deep borewell found that a smaller pump would ensure water availability. Water demand management continues to be a key climate action measure for its members.
In the suburbs of the Upper Austrian capital, Linz, lies Rufling. When WG Rufling was established as a drinking water co-op in the 1920s, the area was entirely rural. Such has been the rate of development since, its borewell abstraction now sits amid an estate of houses. Source protection standards are not compromised how-ever, with ample signage visible to make everyone aware that they are entering a critical zone.
Water from its well and other spring source is treated to mitigate raised levels of manganese, albeit a far cry from the levels some group water schemes have had to contend with. Listening to WG St Oswald operations manager, Josef Stöttinger, the attitude of its membership towards drinking water is coming full circle.
He explained to us that, in the early days of the co-op, the piped supply of quality water was seen as a revelation. As time moved on it was taken somewhat for granted but, with the effects of climate change, people are starting to better appreciate it as a precious resource.
Further south, in the region of Salzkammergut, we met a number of people involved in the CoDWS movement in the community of Bad Goisern. Designated as a World Heritage Site, the mountainous area is renowned for its incredible topography and postcard views. Our hosts were equally impressive.
Local government and community-representative, Schönmayr Roland, explained the history of water co-operatives in the locality. The two oldest CoDWS in the area were founded in the 1890s, with most dating their origins back to at least the 1950s.
Today, 15 CoDWS provide drinking water to 85% of the 7,600 inhabitants of the villages that make up Bad Goisern. The average water co-operative boasts 50-80 members, with the largest comprising of 800.
‘The many co-operatives in Bad Goisern have a great sense of togetherness,’ explained Schönmayr.
‘The various networks are largely combined so that the co-ops can help each other out with water if there is a supply crisis.’
From listening to Schönmayr and his colleagues, their views on the advantages of CoDWS, themes of ownership, personability and speed of service were to the fore. It was clear for everyone in attendance that they took great pride in their work.
Among the notable aspects of our visits to the Austrian CoDWS was the impeccable hygiene and overall standards of their treatment plants and storage facilities. Stainless steel tanks, extensive tiling, and robust spring and wellhead protection are just a few examples of excellent quality assurance adherence.
More than anything, the ACOWAS-EU conference taught us that the ‘community’ aspect of the community-owned and community-run group water scheme sector reaches far beyond Ireland. It is a community of shared ideals and experience that is found wherever CoDWS exist. The opportunities to continue working together and learning from each other should not be overlooked.
This article originally featured in the most recent edition of the Rural Water News magazine. To read the full edition and to sign up to our magazine mailing list, click here.