Although a safe and wholesome drinking water supply can be delivered through treatment barriers, the World Health Organisation reminds us that as part of water safety planning, the first barrier should always be in the raw water source catchment. Source protection planning and implementation is, therefore, a core function of any drinking water supplier. Given that they are embedded within rural communities, it is a function for which group water schemes are particularly well equipped.
Overarching source protection projects
The Federation’s approach to source protection was informed by the National Source Protection Pilot Project, conducted on a lake source in County Monaghan between 2005-2010. Spearheaded by the National Rural Water Monitoring Committee, the report was published in 2011 and its key recommendations helped formulate the NFGWS Source Protection Strategy developed in 2012. This proposed a 2-phase approach, the first involving the mapping/delineation of source catchments, the second the development of full source protection plans. Phase 1 is virtually completed, while two pilot Phase 2 projects commenced during 2018 and are ongoing. Building on learning from this pilot project, the NFGWS also began an integrated source protection planning and mitigation actions project in 2021, funded by both the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH), and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).
Because of the close working relationship that developed with the Geological Survey of Ireland during Phase 1 of the strategy, the GWS sector has developed a deeper understanding of groundwater drinking water sources, the catchments that feed into them and the importance of construction and maintenance to the performance of boreholes in particular. The particular issues that arise for spring sources – and especially those located in karst limestone districts – is also much better understood.
Source protection publications
As part of our source protection pilot project, an NFGWS guidance document has been produced titled A Framework for Drinking Water Source Protection. This ‘Framework’ provides a methodological approach to evaluating pressures on water quality within a drinking water catchment/of contribution so that an informed decision can be made as to whether ‘protection’ or ‘improvement’ will be required. Furthermore, it explains the importance of prioritising contamination risks so that a targeted approach may be adopted. To view this document, click on the image.
Where water quality requires improvement, source protection measures, including mitigation, will be necessary. In an effort to help group water schemes decide upon which mitigation measures would be most appropriate, the NFGWS is in the process of developing a series of mitigation option handbooks. Pressures can derive from urban and rural sources and are not limited to agricultural activities. However, given the predominantly rural setting of group water schemes and their location within agricultural catchments, the preparation of mitigation guidance for the farming community has been prioritised with the publication of A Handbook of Source Protection and Mitigation Actions for Farming. To view this document, click on the image.
Tackling specific threats through public engagement
Given the specific pollution threat arising from on-site wastewater treatment systems (septic tanks), the Federation has worked with the EPA on 2 pilot projects aimed at testing the potential for community-organised desludging of such systems and the development of template documentation that can be used by any group scheme or other community groups. The final report, including recommendations, was published in 2018.
Pesticide misuse is also a major concern for drinking water suppliers. Increased monitoring during the herbicide spraying season has indicated a particular issue with MCPA contamination. The NFGWS, as part of a stakeholder group chaired by the EPA, is working to increase public awareness of this issue through the development and distribution of leaflets for householders and professional users. National GWS source protection projects have also included various education and community awareness initiatives, including the award-winning 'Let it Bee' initiative and 'I've planted a tree and my garden is pesticide free.'
By building awareness of the potential damage that can be caused to a source through specific actions (e.g. careless land-spreading) or inactions (e.g. failure to properly maintain a wastewater treatment system), the water provider’s primary objective is to alter behaviour and to recruit farmers, householders, community organisations and businesses within the catchment area as partners in devising and implementing a source protection plan.
Any source protection plan is likely to include the introduction of mitigation measures targeted at specific risks. Putting ‘the right measure in the right place’ is essential, as this will enhance community understanding and encourage buy-in to the concept of protecting the source.
Working with like-minded stakeholders
As group water schemes have limited resources, source protection strategies can only succeed with the active co-operation of a range of statutory agencies and voluntary organisations whose expertise and influence will feed into the process. As part of the implementation of River Basin Management Plans, under the Drinking Water Directive, there is an emphasis on the value of working with communities and both the EPA's catchment team and the Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO), who are also supporting community-based initiatives, including those of the GWS sector.
In 2020, the Let It Bee initiative, which was initially implemented by group water schemes participating in the source protection pilot project in Roscommon, won the European Landowners’ Organisation's 'European Bee Award.' The overall pilot project was also shortlisted for the European Award for Co-operative Innovation, under the category ‘Environmental Value Creation,’ in 2021.