Public water supplies improving; Private wells a concern

Date released: Dec 11 2013

Public water supplies improving but more investment needed to protect consumers; Private wells a concern

  • Compliance with E.coli standards has continued to improve. There has been a 92% reduction in E. coli exceedances in public water supplies since 2005.
  • The number of water supplies requiring improvement and on the EPA Remedial Action List is down from 339 to 140 in five years.  Remedial works on a further 70 supplies will be complete by the end of the year.
  • Heavy rainfall in the summer of 2012, and sudden changes in raw water quality arising from subsequent flooding, compromised a number of water supplies. 
  • Contaminated private well water can be a source of VTEC (a strain of E. coli which may cause severe illness) as water from many private wells is not disinfected. 

The EPA’s Drinking Water Report for 2012 shows that public water supplies serving more than 82 per cent of the population have improved year-on-year since the EPA created a Remedial Action List (RAL) over five years ago.  There were 339 public water supplies needing remedial action when the list was first compiled, now there are 140.  Remedial works in a further 70 will be complete by year end.  The report’s findings are based on results from over 250,000 monitoring tests.  

Gerard O’Leary, Director of EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement said,

“The report shows that improved monitoring, management, processes, and disinfection practices by local authorities have reduced the number of E.coli occurrences in public supplies by 92 per cent since 2005. The results show progress, but the results also show that Irish Water, the new state utility, has a lot of work to do to provide safe and secure drinking water to the public.”
He continued, “In Roscommon, 15,443 people on public supplies are currently on boil water notices and, overall, 30 supplies across the country are currently on boil water notices or water restrictions. These figures are unacceptable.”

The quality of drinking water from private supplies remains inferior to that from public supplies and gives cause for concern.  In 2012, the HSE reported a doubling of the number of VTEC cases, which is a particularly harmful form of E. coli. Transmission of VTEC can be from person to person, or be waterborne or foodborne.  The second most common transmission route reported by the HSE is waterborne transmission.  Disinfection kills all E. coli including VTEC and, while public water supplies are disinfected, not all private wells are.

“We continue to be concerned about the number of VTEC cases,” said David Flynn, Programme Manager, Office of Environmental Enforcement.  “Any form of E. coli is an indicator of faecal matter in the water supply, and VTEC can have particularly serious consequences. We would urge the owners of private supplies to check their water sources, and ensure that they are adequately protected and the water is disinfected.”

The report shows that poor weather increases the risk of contamination to water supplies.  High levels of rainfall can wash more potential contaminants into water supplies.  While public supplies now have alarms and high levels of monitoring and disinfection, private supplies are more vulnerable as they are less secure than public water supplies.

The report, The Provision and Quality of Drinking Water in Ireland, A Report for the Year 2012, is available on the EPA website and contains summary reports for all Water Service Authorities. 

Notes to Editor:

Irish Water: Established in March 2013 as a semi-state company, Irish Water will bring the water and wastewater services of the 34 Local Authorities together under one national service provider on a phased basis, starting in January 2014.

Security of water supplies: This relies on the management of the risks from the source water to our taps, through the drinking water treatment plant and supply network.  This can be delivered effectively through the adoption of Water Safety Plans. 

Water Safety Plans: an effective means to consistently ensure the safety of drinking water through the use of a comprehensive risk assessment and risk management approach that encompasses all steps in the water supply from catchment to consumer. 

Remedial Action List or RAL: The EPA identified 339 supplies in need of remedial action in early 2008 and placed them on a Remedial Action List or RAL. 

  • 70 per cent (237) have been removed as the necessary remedial actions have been completed. 
  • Remedial works will be complete in a further 70 supplies on the RAL by the end of 2013.

Boil Water Notices and Water Restrictions in 2012: 42 Boil Water Notices and Water Restrictions affecting approximately 50,000 consumers were issued during 2012 while 66 Boil Water Notices and Water Restrictions affecting approximately 57,000 consumers were lifted.

Legal action in 2012: Four legally binding directions were issued by the EPA to two Water Service Authorities in 2012.
Water contamination: E. coli - a bacteria that is an indicator of whether human or animal waste has entered a water supply.  VTEC - A strain of E. coli that produces a powerful toxin and can cause severe illness. There are several important sub groups of VTEC, E. coli O157 is most widely known.

Roles and Responsibilities: The European Communities (Drinking Water) Regulations (No.2), 2007 assigns powers and responsibilities to the EPA in the drinking water area. The powers assigned to the EPA include:

  • The responsibility to issue Directions if necessary to ensure that water supplies comply with relevant quality standards. 
  • The oversight of actions taken by Water Services Authorities in public water supplies to continue to meet the relevant quality standards.
  • The completion of audits at Water Services Authorities water treatment plants.
  • The publication of guidance to assist compliance with the Drinking Water Regulations.

Water Services Authorities are the local authorities.

The local authority, in turn, has been designated as the supervisory authority over private water supplies (including group water schemes) and has similar responsibilities to the EPA in relation to these supplies.