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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 27 January 2021

'Got a big Irish Water bill? Alright – now fix that leak'

People are finally talking about ways to flush less drinking water down their toilets. Why? Because that water is going to cost them money.

Aaron McKenna

AROUND THE COUNTRY there are vast reservoirs, many boreholes and intake points that collect water. Every one of them is checked, maintained and the first step in getting drinking water. This collection goes through a screening process, to weed out large objects, and then heads into a coagulation tank where a chemical is added to make small bits of gunk collect together into something called “floc” for easier removal. Propeller like fans run constantly to agitate the water and make it all come together.

The water next goes into a settlement tank, where small particles are removed after falling to the bottom. Then the water gets pumped through a sand, or sand-like, filter to remove any remaining bits. Finally, it goes into a disinfectant tank that takes out bacteria and other nasty microbiological material before the now safe to drink water goes into vast storage tanks that must themselves be constantly kept sterile. Pumping stations then keep up the water pressure required to get it into your home.

All along the way there are engineers working on things from the complex, like maintaining coagulation tanks and pumps, to the simple: Checking filtration grates to make sure they’re in one piece. Vast amounts of electricity go into running the whole show, all to pump water that is perfectly drinkable (in most parts of the country) into your home.

Then, finally, at the penultimate moment in the lifecycle of this water… We pump a load of it into our toilet, and urinate on it.

Dublin is at capacity on producing and supplying drinking water

If you have a new and clean cistern you can fill it for the first time, dunk a glass into it and drink what’s there. That is ridiculously stupid. Particularly when, for example, Dublin is at capacity on producing and supplying drinking water and there’s holy war going on over proposals to tap the Shannon to keep the capital going.

Nobody but Irish Water really likes Irish Water. We’re being made to pay for a thing that we didn’t have to pay for directly before, with the cost of water coming out of other taxes. Who likes paying more for anything?

Alas, the state has gone through bankruptcy. While your taxes might have paid for water before, they’re not paying for it today when we’re knee deep in debt and still running a deficit. The government and Irish Water itself have completely screwed up in the design and foundation of the super quango, but we knew when the last Fianna Fáil government signed an agreement with the Troika for a lifesaving bailout that we were getting water charges. We can critique the manner of its inception, but Irish Water was inevitable the day the economy ran into a wall – and it’s here now to stay.

People are actually starting to talk about water conservation

In principal, a usage based charge is a good one. Use more, pay more. Use less, pay less. It beats the “get a raise, we take half,” approach to raising a substantial amount of our tax revenues. Again, I hear the cribbing about motor taxes and paying twice and all that. Ideally a water charge would have been introduced in the good days, and been offset by a cut in income taxes or similar. But, alas, if you want €50 billion in government spending and only raise €36 billion in taxes, such as we did in 2009, you have to pay more tax or cut the spending.

So, it’s here. Now let’s consider the positives: for the first time that I can remember, people who aren’t members of the Green Party are talking about ways to flush less drinking water down their toilets. Why? Because that water is going to cost them money, and when you’re thinking about flushing money down the toilet it all becomes more real.

The reality is that every leak, every shower, every garden hose and cistern has been flushing money away since forever. It’s just that general government expenditure was covering the loss, and nobody was really very motivated to fix the problems, let alone take proactive measures towards reducing waste.

One of the biggest sources of leaks are cisterns, and I know folks who’ve had water visibly leaking 24/7 for years now, literally years without doing anything about it. They’re talking about it now, though. Why? Because the first of the Irish Water “notional” bills are dropping through the front door.

Find that leak and fix it

Anti-water charge protestors have been holding aloft bills sent to, for example, an elderly couple who would have paid over €400 in the event the bill wasn’t capped with the ridiculously named “water conservation grant”. How terrible, cry the protestors! These poor old people, going to be left cold in winter if Irish Water gets its wicked way!

Except, there’s probably a leak somewhere in their house that they should deal with. The notional bill is a shot across the bow: maybe get someone to take a look, find that leak and fix it. Another friend of mine spoke about a thousand euro bill that came in. Either he’s running a brewery I’m not aware of, or he has a major leak that needs fixing.

I know other people who’ve “beat the cap” and used substantially less water than it is estimated their household should. Why? Because these people are water conscious.

There’s loads of stuff you can do to reduce usage. Houses, going forward, should be retrofitted – or built from scratch with – rainwater collection tanks for wastewater. I remember going on a river cruise once, and another guest remarking they didn’t like the brownish colour of the river water used in the toilets. I did pause to wonder if they considered the implication of the act, and whether or not it really mattered if the water started brownish that was going to… Well, you get my drift.

We flush tonnes of money away every day

Even without that, you can for example reduce the amount used in a flush by putting some ballast into the cistern. Or you can use water saving shower heads. Or just be more mindful, and turn off the tap when brushing, or use a small bit of water in the sink to rinse a razor rather than a running tap. Irish Water recorded a major drop in water usage when the charge was supposed to come in, that subsequently spiked back up when it was announced it would be a flat rate.

We flush tonnes of money away every day. Irish Water needs to fix the big leaks in creaky pipe infrastructure but so, too, in homes we can do a lot to reduce our drinking water usage and bring down the cost and ecological impact of treatment. We know that people don’t respond to good faith advertising campaigns, but they do to bills coming in the door.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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