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Minister Eoghan Murphy's Statements on Drought Conditions and Need for Water Conservation

Published on Thursday, 12 Jul 2018
Minister Eoghan Murphy

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Weather

Our weather has been dominated by high pressure for the past 3 weeks, giving us warm, dry and sunny weather.  Heat-wave and drought conditions have been reported across the country.  A heat-wave is defined as 5 days with temperatures over 25 degrees and drought is defined as a period of 15 or more consecutive days, on which no significant rain fell.

Despite the temperatures having fallen back to more normal values this week, Met Éireann is forecasting only small amounts of rain for the rest of this week and most of next week as well.  This means that there will be little or no alleviation in the drought conditions.

Soil moisture deficits are very high for this time of the year, typical deficits of 70 to 100 mm exist across the country.  Water levels in rivers and groundwater are very low and unless we get significant rainfall in the coming weeks, rivers could reach their lowest levels on record.  Sustained rainfall will be needed to restore both groundwater and river levels to near normal conditions.  The current dry period is being compared to the summers of 1976 and 1995.  The features in common include low rainfall from late spring/ early summer, coinciding with high temperatures from late May – early June onwards.  The population has increased significantly since 1976, and combined with increased use of water in commercial sector, this means that the volume of treated water necessary to maintain normal functioning within society is much higher than in 1976.

Water temperatures in our rivers and lakes are also very high, and at some locations at critical levels with potential to impact on fish life, in particular salmon and trout.

The drought conditions are expected to persist in the medium and long-term.

General Impact

Very high temperatures, up to 32 degrees, were recorded in the week ending 29 June. Since then the weather has been less extreme with temperatures spread in the range of early to late twenty degrees celsius.  Night-time temperatures have been within normal ranges, something which has been helpful to people in coping with the warm conditions.

However, the main feature of the weather, along with the sunshine, has been the absence of rain, which has given us drought.  The main consequences of this are for our water supplies, for water quality and inland fisheries, for wildland fires and for agriculture.

Water Supply

Probably the single biggest challenge arising from the drought conditions for the coming weeks, if not months, will be maintaining drinking water supply across the country. Irish Water has been managing a very difficult and evolving situation and is  doing everything possible to maintain supplies.   

The Irish Water Crisis Management Team began work as soon as this warm weather came into view in June and is meeting daily to monitor both demand and water supply production capacity around the country, and taking steps to supply water where supplies are at risk.  Water production is being maintained at record levels to deal with the increased demand.  Local authority crews are busy identifying and fixing leaks to take pressure off the system and Irish Water has mobilised additional crews at critical locations to support local authority efforts.  Irish Water has extended the ban on the use of hose pipes in domestic settings nationwide with effect from midnight on 5 July 2018 and is urging people everywhere to conserve water.

I have visited their Headquarters myself to see the work they are doing and we must give credit to their team for the proactive approach they have taken.

Out of their nearly one thousand water supply systems, nine schemes are currently experiencing severe drought, 51 are in drought condition and a further 77 are in potential drought situations. Irish Water are implementing their response plans to provide supplies of water to customers in schemes affected by the current drought conditions.  We have been working to ensure inter-agency collaboration and support for Irish Water in putting alternative water supplies and distribution arrangements in place for those schemes already experiencing severe drought conditions. 

The agriculture community and those with their own wells are also affected, as groundwater levels in aquifers are declining.  The National Federation of Group Water Schemes has issued advice on conservation measures and is working to support its members on the ground.

The over-riding concern will be for the longer term and the supply of drinking water in late summer and autumn.

There appears to be little prospect of getting the levels of rainfall which would alleviate the drought conditions in the short term.  As the drought is likely to persist, and ground water and lake and river levels come under greater pressure right across the country, I think it is prudent to introduce restrictions such as reduced water pressure at night on a much wider scale with a view to conserving our water supplies longer term. It is not just for July or August we need to plan, but into September and even October.

It is critically important that everybody – businesses and private individuals – makes every effort to support the responsible use of water.  This means avoiding unnecessary usage, repairing leaks promptly and generally conserving water. 

Looking beyond the current dry period, it is important to highlight the planned progress over the next decade to deliver high quality sustainable water supplies to meet future demands.  Under the National Development Plan, we have committed €8.5 billion to improving the public water system. 

Of this, €2.9bn is aimed at providing a safe and reliable water supply, which includes a national programme of investment to tackle leakage through the ‘find and fix’ initiative (active leakage control).  Over €500m is targeted at water mains rehabilitation. Separate provision has also been made for the Eastern and Midlands Water Supply Project in the event that it is successful in the consenting process.

Wildland Fires

On Tuesday the 26th of June, the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine issued a National Condition RED Wildland Fire Danger Notice in response to the drought resulting from the warm weather event; this was extended on the 6th of July and was extended again yesterday as the drought conditions persist and vegetation remains extremely dry and flammable right across the country.

Fire services are making up to 100 responses currently to wildland fire incidents every day down from a peak on 3rd July of 160 responses per day.

Although coping with the current level of incidents, this effectively is doubling the number of incidents fire services would normally respond to every day. This is putting pressure on fire services, and I would like to express my appreciation for the Air Corps helicopters which have been called in to assist with wildland fire-fighting for the past two weeks.

As the drought continues, the flammable conditions for fire will remain.  This underlines the need for care to prevent wildland fires from starting.  Controlled burning of stubble by farmers is banned by the Department of Agriculture. Social media is being used to make people aware of the wildland fire risk and people visiting or hiking in the countryside should not light any fires. Reports indicate that a significant number of the current wildland fires are caused by careless discarding of matches and cigarette ends.

We must sustain our fire prevention efforts – smoke from wildland fires can cause air quality issues, and our local authority fire services are working together with the EPA and the HSE to monitor situations which could cause difficulties for persons susceptible to breathing difficulties.

Water Supply for Fire-fighting

Fire services are working with Irish Water to ensure that they can access waters supplies in urban areas where there may be restrictions on water pressure. Each fire engine carries 2,000 litres of water and this is sufficient to put out the majority of fires, but it is important that restricted supplies can be redirected without delay to areas where fire services are fighting large fires in towns. 

Where practicable, fire services are filling their fire engines and water tankers from open sources – rivers and lakes – rather than taking mains waters for fire fighting.

Water Safety

The Irish Coast Guard and Irish Water Safety have been active since the beginning of this warm spell and continue their proactive campaigns of water safety awareness.

Environmental Issues

As flows in streams and rivers reduce, the probability of potential environmental impacts increases also.  Water levels in rivers across the country are very low and if we don’t get significant rainfall in the coming weeks, it is likely that river flows in 2018 could reach their lowest levels on record.

Water temperatures in rivers are now at critical levels also, e.g. River Suir was recorded at 22.4o at 8pm on 9th July.  This has potential impact on fish, in particular on Salmon and Trout rivers which need high levels of dissolved oxygen.  There was a fish kill on the Ollatrim River in Co. Tipperary on Tuesday evening.  The number of fish kills is likely to increase as flows reduce and water temperatures increase.  Also, pollutants may be washed into rivers by rainfall and we need vigilance and for people to provide information to Inland Fisheries Ireland on this aspect.

Coordination

As Lead Government Department for coordinating the response to severe weather events, my Department has been active since the 21 June and continues to work closely with the sectors most impacted by the current conditions.  The drought is presenting the biggest challenges at the moment.

Along with Minister Kevin Boxer Moran I attended the weekly Inter-agency Review meeting held yesterday to consider issues arising from the drought associated with the extended period of warm weather which the country is enjoying.  Last week we appealed to the public to use water sparingly and to prevent wildland fires during what looks like being a long period of dry weather conditions.

It is our view that there are no emerging public safety issues at this time which warrant convening a National Emergency Co-ordination Group, but the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management will keep the situation under review and continue the current level of co-ordination with relevant sectors as they manage the issues within their remit.

As well as being “Winter Ready”, we now have to be “Summer Ready”. Householders, farmers and businesses of all kinds have to conserve water at every opportunity and to think about resilience and how they will cope if supplies are reduced. We may get a small amount of rain in the days ahead, but this will not change the overall picture. We have to conserve our water supplies for the weeks and months ahead.

The evidence we heard at yesterday’s meeting indicates that people are both heeding the “Conserve Water” message and being careful about fires. Water consumption has stabilised, and the number of wildland fires is down.  

I would like to thank the public for their response and community spirit to date, and to encourage everybody to continue do their part in conserving our water supplies and preventing fires.  This will enable the country to enjoy the summer, while we manage the issues the drought is raising for the country.