Incoming NFGWS Chairperson sets his sights on the future
At the NFGWS Annual Delegate Conference on the 7th of March 2019, Vincent Farrelly succeeded Brendan O’Mahony, as Federation Chairperson. In this interview, NFGWS Research & Evaluation Officer, Brian MacDonald, asked the County Cavan dairy farmer to outline what he sees as the priorities for the Federation in the years ahead.
BmacD: As a long-standing Board colleague of Brendan O’Mahony, can we expect any change of direction under your leadership?
VF: Well, I want to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor. Besides being colleagues and officers of the Federation, we developed a close personal friendship over the years and I am delighted that he is to remain with the Board in a support and advisory role.
I would be very happy if I could replicate Brendan’s style of leadership, which was to encourage contributions from his Board colleagues but to bring discussions to a close when a decision had to be made.
As to changing direction, I think that the destination remains the same no matter who is in charge. Building a resilient and viable GWS sector is my top priority, as it must be for anybody in this position.
As to how we reach that destination, I intend bringing some fresh thinking to that because I firmly believe that we turned a corner in recent years that has opened up new possibilities and new challenges.
BmacD: What do you mean when you say that the sector has ‘turned a corner’?
VF: What I mean is that the central objective of the Federation when it was established was to achieve equity and fairness for the GWS sector with regard to State funding of drinking water services.
That objective has now been achieved and that will be a lasting legacy of Brendan’s leadership.
As a result, the financial resources are now available for schemes to put in place the management systems that a modern drinking water service requires.
The hesitancy of many schemes in regard to employing managers or caretakers has been a cause of concern to the Board for some years.
In our view, it is simply not sustainable to rely on voluntary management of the day-to-day operation of group water schemes.
I think that a growing number of GWS committees are accepting that this is the case and that they would be happy to step back from operational responsibilities to focus on what every GWS board should be doing – providing oversight of scheme operations on behalf of the group scheme members.
BmacD: But is there any evidence that a significant number of schemes are moving to recruit staff?
VF: Not as yet, but I am confident that this will come as the Federation’s second-phase rationalisation strategy begins to impact.
We have to remember that at present more than half of all schemes have less than 100 households and a large proportion of these are very small indeed.
Personally, I can understand why such small schemes would be nervous about taking on employees and the financial commitment involved in doing so.
Rationalisation and, where possible, amalgamation offers the answer to such concerns, as the larger schemes that will emerge will have a much greater capacity to employ staff.
In my view and in the view of my Board colleagues, this offers the way forward for most group water schemes and for small schemes in particular, as they now have the added incentive provided by Subsidy C.
While the strategy is still in its early stages, the ‘good news stories’ from the West Limerick and Offaly Pathfinder projects are filtering through to other schemes and we are encouraged by the evident willingness of many such schemes to positively consider rationalisation.
To further encourage them in this direction, the Board will ensure that the resources of the Federation are at the disposal of schemes in terms of providing advice and helping them through the rationalisation process.
Indeed, this is a major element of the 6-year Strategic Plan that I will be bringing forward for the consideration of the Board at our next meeting.
BmacD: Apart from the rationalisation strategy, what will the main focus of the Strategic Plan be?
VF: Well rationalisation is just one element of building resilience and sustainability within the sector.
Group schemes are obliged to provide a ‘safe and wholesome’ drinking water supply on a consistent basis. For this reason, quality is – and always will be – of paramount importance.
This refers to the quality of water supplied by schemes, but it also includes the quality of the service that schemes provide to their members.
Our NFGWS Quality Assurance system provides a standard for the sector, but we need a major push to implement scheme-specific QA plans that fit into the Water Safety Planning approach of the EPA.
Water conservation is another priority. The massive progress that the GWS sector has made in this area has to be built upon as part of our strategic approach.
My own scheme, Clifferna GWS, piloted universal metering back 15 years ago and looking back we don’t know how we managed before they were installed.
Universal metering and bulk metering on every scheme will be an immediate objective, as these are the basic tools of managing water flow in the network.
In addition, we aim to ensure that every scheme has its network mapped along with its other infrastructure.
We have provided leadership in this area, but there is a lot more that can be done in reducing UFW to the single digit figures being achieved elsewhere in Europe.
BmacD: Have you plans to meet with the Department in the near future?
VF: Well, the Federation has ongoing quarterly meetings with the Department, but yes, I do hope to sit with the Minister and his officials to discuss our strategic plan when it is finalised because I believe that the partnership we have constructed under the Rural Water Programme has been key to the successful evolution of the GWS sector.
Building on this and other partnership arrangements is a priority if we are to ensure that adequate funding is available to this sector into the future.
The Rural Water Investment Needs working group will have a major influence on long-term funding and we need to be very engaged with that also and, indeed, with An Fóram Uisce [Water Forum] as the advisory body to the Minister on water services policy.
I will also be encouraging the further development of our partnership with other Statutory Agencies, such as the EPA. The value of such links can be seen in the willingness of a wide range of such agencies to involve themselves actively in our latest source protection pilot projects.
BmacD: Speaking of source protection, and as a farmer, how do you think the agricultural sector will respond to our source protection strategy?
VF: Well I think that farmers accept that things need to change so that the loss of nutrients and herbicides to lakes and rivers is prevented.
For this reason, I applaud the introduction of a stand-alone source protection Measure under the multi-annual Rural Water Programme that will support simple responses that farmers can live with.
Farmers would naturally be nervous if they thought that source protection meant a loss of income and that can’t be allowed to happen.
If it is to succeed, therefore, it is essential that the strategy is sensitively handled and that it takes into account the need to protect the livelihood of farmers.