New water abstractions bill signed into law

A bill setting out a system of controls related to water abstraction has been signed into law. Titled ‘Water Environment (Abstractions and Associated Impoundments) Bill 2022’, the bill sets out a process for the registration, assessment and licensing of both surface water and groundwater abstractions.

With the process based on legislation enacted in the 1940s and 1960s, the new Bill modernises the process and is necessary to help Ireland meet the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive. At a high level, its purpose is to ensure that water abstraction is in keeping with Ireland’s environmental goals and is operated in a sustainable manner.

Registration

Previous abstraction legislation was found to not be fully compliant with the Water Framework Directive and was part of an infringement action brought by the European Commission against Ireland.

As an interim measure, Ireland introduced the European Union (Water Policy) (Abstraction Registration) Regulations 2018, which required all abstractions of 25m3 per day or more to have that abstraction entered onto the register of abstractions maintained by the EPA.

The majority of group water schemes have already registered their abstraction in order to comply with this regulation. Under the new bill, all abstractions, including group water schemes, that reach a minimum daily threshold of abstraction (25m3 per day) will be required to register its abstraction in a similar fashion. Those that abstract 2,000m3 or more will automatically require an abstraction licence.

Based on the current level of GWS abstractions only a handful of schemes will automatically require an abstraction licence.

Assessments

However, an EPA screening process will assess all registered abstractions and determine whether a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required. If an EIA deems an abstraction to pose a significant environmental risk, it will necessitate an abstraction licence regardless of whether abstraction thresholds.

EIAs for these abstractions will reviewed at least once every six years. In the case of surface water abstractions, the determining factors include the hydrogeological regime of the waterbody and its biological quality. For groundwater, recharge times and impacts on connected surface waters are among the elements assessed.

At Risk Abstractions

As part of the implementation of the first River Basin Management Plan (2010–2015), an initial screening exercise identified 16 GWS surface water sources (mostly in the Cavan and Monaghan) that were potentially at risk from over-abstraction. The EPA has recently confirmed to the NFGWS that this initial screening exercise has been discontinued and will be replaced by the more robust assessment process required by the Bill.

Water Conservation

The excellent work undertaken by many schemes to address water demand and unaccounted-for-water (UFW) in recent years must remain a priority, particularly for schemes whose source may be identified as being at risk from over-abstraction.

In addition, the impact of climate change in recent years on some GWS sources will also have to be considered to ensure sustainable supplies into the future. Efforts to build resilience of supply in addition to water conservation will need to be considered by some schemes. GWSs with high levels of water demand or UFW should seek to address these issues as a priority under the next Multi-annual Rural Water Programme.

The three stage process outlined in the previous programme framework (installing basic infrastructure, completing a water audit and critical mains replacement) needs to be followed if funding is being sought to address such issues.

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.