Communities benefit from improvements to wastewater infrastructure

03 November 2021

Irish Water’s consistent progress in upgrading wastewater treatment and eliminating the discharge of raw sewage to Ireland’s rivers, lakes and coastal areas is benefiting communities and enhancing the environment throughout Ireland.

The latest EPA Urban Wastewater Treatment Report, published today, shows the progress being made, while also highlighting the need for continued investment in our essential wastewater services.

In the last six years, Irish Water has prioritised areas where it can support housing and development and have the greatest environmental impact, particularly in locations where raw sewage was discharging into our rivers and seas.

Over 60% of raw sewage discharges have been eliminated – and replaced with treatment capacity for the equivalent of 120,000 people. As a result of the targeted investment in wastewater infrastructure, communities around Ireland are now reaping the rewards of a cleaner environment, safer bathing waters and greater opportunities for the development of new homes, businesses and tourism.

To date new wastewater treatment plants have been built in 17 locations where raw sewage had been discharged into the sea for decades. By the end of this year construction will have started in an additional 14 locations, with a further eight projects due to get underway next year and the remaining nine from 2023 onwards. This means that over 95% of raw sewage discharges are on track to be removed by the end of 2025.

The size and scale of this work is significant, with an estimated €650 million investment committed to tackling this problem. The positive impact of this investment is evident around the country with continued improvements in bathing water quality in locations where Irish Water has completed upgrade projects, such as Killala, Youghal, Bundoran and Rush. 

In the past month alone two major milestones have been reached, with the ending of the raw sewage discharges from Cobh as the final element of the Cork Lower Harbour Main Drainage Project, and the start of construction on the new Arklow Wastewater Treatment Plant. These represent the two largest remaining locations where raw sewage was being discharged to the environment. The latest milestone in the Cork Lower Harbour Project brings to 20,000 the number of homes and businesses in the area whose sewage is no longer being pumped directly into the waters of the harbour.

The commencement of the Arklow Wastewater Treatment plant in Co Wicklow marks the beginning of the end of raw sewage discharges into the Avoca River.

In addition to ending the discharge of raw sewage by building infrastructure where none previously existed, Irish Water has also been continuing with its programme of upgrading existing wastewater treatment plants and networks in towns and villages throughout Ireland. In 2020, an additional 10 wastewater treatment plants were built or upgraded, directly benefiting the equivalent of over 20,000 people in these communities while also protecting our wider environment. The number of plants on the Priority Action List is also continuing to fall, currently down to 97 from 148 in 2017. Irish Water currently has plans in place to address 75 of these, with the remainder to be addressed in subsequent investment cycles. We are continuing to progress these and will provide detailed plans and timelines subject to available funding. 

Niall Gleeson, Managing Director of Irish Water, commented: “Having a modern, sustainable and functional wastewater network is critical in order to protect our environment and to support housing and economic growth in the years ahead. Irish Water is working closely with the EPA and our other partners, including local authorities, to ensure this can be delivered in the most efficient and sustainable way through the use of cutting edge technologies, science and engineering expertise, and meaningful engagement with local communities around Ireland. 

There is no doubt that challenges remain. Much of the infrastructure for safely collecting and treating wastewater around the country has suffered from decades of under-investment. And in some instances planning and other statutory processes, which are outside Irish Water’s control, have impacted on delivery timelines. 

But Irish Water has a plan in place to address these challenges and we are making real progress. Continued investment will be required in the coming years to build a modern, fit-for-purpose wastewater network but we are confident that we are on track to achieving that aim.

One of the key priorities in Irish Water is compliance with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. Due to the work undertaken to address long-standing issues with many wastewater treatment plants, the compliance rates have increased from 71% in 2014 to 93% in 2020. 

The largest remaining location that is not compliant with the Directive is Ringsend, which treats 44% of the country’s wastewater load. To address this, Irish Water is investing over €500 million in the staged upgrading of Ringsend Wastewater Treatment Plant. This major upgrade, which is now underway, will allow the Ringsend Wastewater Treatment Plant to treat the increasing volumes of wastewater arriving at the plant to the required standard, enabling future housing and commercial development. The project will deliver, on a phased basis, the capacity to treat the wastewater for a population equivalent of 2.4 million while achieving the standards of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.