Rural Water Conference 2023 — ‘Embracing Change’

Douglas Kelly (DHLGH) delivers his presentation during the Rural Water Services Conference morning session.

Speaking at 7 September’s Rural Water Conference, Douglas Kelly, the new principal officer in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH), had a very clear message: ‘We’re here. We’re going nowhere, the funding is going nowhere, we want to get it out to you.’

Despite delays to announcement of the new Multi-annual Rural Water Programme (MARWP), Douglas reiterated the Department’s commitment to the GWS sector, saying: ‘You are our key stakeholders for what we are trying to do in rural water’.

Collaboration, communication and the availability of financial support were the key themes from his conference presentation, which looked forward to the launch of the new capital programme. Given the large underspend in the current MARWP, Douglas spoke about the need for a close working relationship between all parties when preparing bids for its next iteration.

‘The underspend is a problem. We need to spend the money. And when I say “we”, I mean all of us. That’s why we, in the Department side, need to make it easier to get access to funding — when it’s appropriate, with appropriate controls in place and being conscious of spending codes.’

He later added that ‘It is hugely important that the applications we get in are well thought out, and that yourselves [GWSs], the NFGWS and local authorities are involved from the ground up.’

‘It’s very easy to allocate money on a spreadsheet but we want to allocate money to projects that will be completed.’

MARWP Applications

Douglas assured attendees that GWSs will be given adequate time and assistance in preparing applications. This will also help to ensure that all proposals are well prepared, with agreement from all involved. To that end, there will be a requirement that applications include a commitment that they will begin by the end of 2026.

He added that there are ongoing discussions within the DHLGH and with Minister O’Brien regarding possibilities of introducing a midterm review during the programme, rather than closing the door on potential projects that may arise after the application window closes.

Importantly, Douglas noted that they DHLGH will strive to take the intangible benefits of proposed projects when considering their value. Such benefits include the promotion of economic and social development in rural Ireland and the protection of the environment.

Rural Water Review

Some 269 delegates were in attendance at the conference in Athlone to listen to a variety of speakers from across rural water. This year’s theme, ‘Embracing Change – Opportunities and Challenges for the GWS Sector’, focused on a time of transformation within the sector. The morning session — which was chaired by Tommy Ryan, chairperson of the Water Services Training Group — saw Brian Gallagher, technical director with TOBIN Consulting Engineers, gave the first presentation of the conference. Brian was lead author of a recently published report by TOBIN, which was commissioned as part of the Rural Water Working Group’s ongoing review of the rural water sector.

As Brian explained to attendees, the report was not intended to make recommendations but was a gap analysis of the entire rural water sector, including group water schemes, other private supplies and non-sewered domestic wastewater.

Brian Gallagher (TOBIN) answers a question from the audience during Q&A in the conference morning session.

The research comprised two parts, the first being a literature review and consultation with various stakeholders, including the NFGWS and six sector representative group water schemes. The second part of the research was the published output report. The report highlighted how 16% of the Irish householders get their water from a private water supply (GWSs, small private supplies and domestic wells), a large portion in comparison to other countries.

The percentage is dropping, as the country becomes more urbanised, and it is likely to continue to do so. The report noted that the €1.25 billion plus invested by the state in rural water programme through capital funding and subsidies has ‘served the needs of the sector well’ over the past 24 years.

Brian concluded that the continued commitment of those involved in rural water services will be needed to meet the remaining and evolving challenges in the sector, in order to achieve parity with public water supplies and wastewater services.

Legislative changes

Jean Rosney, senior development co-ordinator with the NFGWS, was next on stage to discuss recent legislative changes that will impact drinking water suppliers. Top of the agenda was Ireland’s new drinking water regulations. Signed into legislation in March, the regulations were updated to meet the dictates of the recently recast EU Drinking Water Directive (DWD).

The DWD includes updated safety standards and introduces a methodology to identify and manage quality risks in the whole water supply chain. The new Directive establishes a watchlist of emerging substances and introduces conformity provisions for products to be used in contact with drinking water. The Directive also includes new provisions that require member states to improve and maintain access to drinking water for all.

L-R: Minister of State in the DHLGH, Kieran O’Donnell TD, delivering his opening Ministerial Address. Centre: Jean Rosney (NFGWS) speaking about legislative changes. Right: Geraldine Taylor (Kilconieron GWS) discussing the group water scheme’s water safety planning approach.

Jean placed particular emphasis on the risk assessment and risk management elements of the new regulations, which have some crossover with the environmental targets of the Water Framework Directive.

The risk assessment and risk management of the catchment areas for abstraction points must be completed not later than 12 July 2027, while 12 July 2029 is the deadline for the risk assessment and risk management of the supply system (abstraction, treatment, storage, and distribution network).

Group water schemes also need to be cognisant of the new ‘Water Environment (Abstractions and Associated Impoundments) Bill, which sets out a process for the registration, assessment and licensing of both surface water and groundwater abstractions.

Under the new bill, all abstractions that reach a minimum daily threshold of abstraction (25m3 per day) will be required to register its abstraction. Those that abstract 2,000m3 or more will automatically require an abstraction licence, as will abstractions that are below the threshold but are deemed to pose a significant environmental risk.

Water safety plans

Under the new regulations, every group water scheme will need to prepare a drinking water safety plan (WSP) that takes account of all aspects of its drinking water supply chain.
Geraldine Taylor, manager of Kilconieron GWS in County Galway, opened the conference’s second session with a presentation on her experience preparing such a plan. In 2018, it was feared that the GWS may have been the source of a cryptosporidium problem. Although these fears were later allayed, the stressful experience inspired the GWS to develop a robust water safety plan that could be used as a foundation for ongoing quality assurance and as something that could be relied upon in times of crisis.

Geraldine explained why a WSP must be specific to each GWS, rather than some generic document. Her presentation highlighted how Kilconieron GWS’s WSP has provided great guidance and key performance indicators that have assisted in the everyday GWS operations.

Document control is also an important aspect of its WSP, something which Geraldine highly recommended as a method for guiding operations and as a record-keeping method for audits etc. In conclusion, Geraldine said that a water safety plan gives their GWS confidence and control in response to any situation.

Source protection pilot project

Patrick McCabe and Seán Corrigan were heavily involved in the NFGWS Drinking Water Source Protection Pilot Project – Phase II, which was completed in 2022. Their conference presentation discussed what was achieved during the project and, in particular, why community collaboration was so important.

The science behind the catchment plans that were created for the nine participating GWSs across Monaghan, Roscommon and Westmeath was explained by Patrick. Mitigation measures included physical actions, such as the installation of fencing and hedgerows, along with significant communication efforts to encourage behavioural change.

L-R: Patrick McCabe (NFGWS), Dr Jolanta Burke (RCSI), Seán Corrigan (NFGWS) and Seán Clerkin (Tydavnet GWS), pictured after Patrick and Seán presented on the results of the NFGWS source protection pilot project.

Seán described the project’s philosophy as focusing on ‘the head, the heart and the hands’.When the NFGWS and group water schemes met with farmers and other members of the public, it was important that they were armed with the science that could explain why there was an issue (the head).

The project had to be meaningful and show how those involved were important collaborators (the heart), and it had to give people something practical that they could do to help out (the hands). The session’s chairperson, Dr Jolanta Burke of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, is currently leading a study on how the well-being of some of those involved in the pilot project was impacted by their participation.

Seán’s presentation gave us a preview of some what the farmers interviewed had to say. Comments included: ‘The farmers now get involved in national issues — pesticides, protecting water, phosphates — they see it as their role as protector of the environment.’

The groundwater aspect of the source protection pilot project involved close collaboration with Roscommon County Council. Its environmental section’s chief technician, Gerard Hannon, was next to present at the conference.

Although Gerard had been tasked with presenting on how the project has impacted levels of environmental compliance, he made the important point that its outcomes have actually gone beyond mere regulatory standards.

80% reduction

Among his observed outcomes from the project, Gerard examined the numbers of water environment related complaints made to the local authority by people living in the participating group water scheme areas. There has been an 80% reduction in the number of complaints received since the source protection project began.

This figure is particularly striking for Gerard because, from his experience of working in other environment related projects, complaints usually rise rather than fall once authorities are seen to be working in the area. This suggests to him that the levels of community engagement achieved by the source protection project have had an impact on how these communities work together and interact with the environment.

Gerard explained that the project has shown that communities will work to protect water when given the right tools, measures and guidance. Education and awareness raising efforts have also been key to achieving such levels of buy-in.

Gretta McCarron (An Fóram Uisce) and Barry Deane (NFGWS) in conversation in preparation for their involvement in the conference’s afternoon session.

25 years of the NFGWS

This year marks 25 years since the NFGWS was incorporated as a co-operative. NFGWS chief executive officer, Barry Deane’s conference presentation celebrated this important anniversary.

Barry took attendees on a whistle-stop tour through the history of the Federation and what has been achieved by the sector during in that time. 1998 also saw the launch of the first Rural Water Programme and establishment of the National Rural Water Monitoring Committee.

This new partnership approach between the GWS sector, local authorities and the Department of Environment was the catalyst for huge change. Many smaller GWSs amalgamated or rationalised into more sustainable entities, the concept of DBO bundling was introduced, with training courses and a quality assurance programme developed for an increasingly professionalised approach to GWS operations.

Central to these developments has been the co-operative ethos, a governance structure that has been promoted and further adopted by the sector throughout the past 25 years. To mark the anniversary, the NFGWS is currently working on a short documentary which will feature interviews with a number of people involved in the sector.

During his presentation, Barry shared a snippet of the interview with former Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) chief executive officer, Séamus O’Donohoe. Séamus remarked: ‘As co-operative models go, the group water scheme sector is exceptional.’

The full documentary video will be published in the coming months and there will be more reflections on the 25th anniversary in the next edition of Rural Water News.

Encouraging GWS participation

Gretta McCarron, communication and education lead with An Fóram Uisce, chaired the final session of the day, a panel discussion that focused on how the sector can encourage greater participation from its members.

Joining Gretta onstage was Mary Connolly, NFGWS board member and secretary of Corrick GWS in County Sligo; Seán Clerkin, former NFGWS national co-ordinator and current manager of Tydavnet GWS in County Monaghan; Shane Curley, manager of Glinsk Creggs GWS in County Galway; and Darragh Walshe, development executive with ICOS.

Panellists Mary Connolly (Corrick GWS), Seán Clerkin (Tydavnet GWS), Shane Curley (Glinsk Creggs GWS) and Darragh Walshe (ICOS), discuss the topic of encouraging greater participation in group water schemes.

During an interesting discussion, conservation turned to what needs to be done to sustain local involvement in the sector and ensure a prosperous future for group water schemes. Mary Connolly touched on a number of important points, saying:

‘We will have to change, and there’s a certain amount of “needing to let go”, because a lot of people on the committee are the same people who’ve always been there, and is it maybe that we’re afraid to let go? We need to get more people involved and involved in different areas.’

Future challenges

Seán echoed Mary’s sentiment, citing upcoming challenges and the need to bring new energy from members. He particularly highlighted the climate and biodiversity crises as areas that could place GWSs under severe stress and something that we must be preparing for now.

‘There is a story at every meter box,’ said Shane Curley. Glinsk Creggs GWS has been carrying out extensive source protection works in recent times, which has garnered such great community engagement that it gives Shane hope for the future. In particular, Shane spoke about how he is hopeful that the work the GWS has done in local schools will inspire the next generation to get involved.

Darragh Walshe explained that other co-operatives are experiencing the same challenges in getting people involved. Quite often, the best policy is to get out into the community and make the approach to possible board members: ‘We’re finding that the first move needs to be made by the co-op and that people need a lot of coaxing to come in. However, when they are in, the engagement is great.’

Videos of each presentation and the panel discussion are available to watch on the NFGWS website and YouTube page.

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.