NI Water issues the stark warning after concern over pollution here
NI Water has warned of potential water supply difficulties and an increased risk of sewer flooding and environmental damage in the absence of essential infrastructural investment.
It comes after a Green Party MLA called for pollution incidents to be more accurately recorded.
North Down MLA Rachel Woods asked Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon whether her department intends on monitoring the level of untreated sewage discharged into Northern Ireland’s rivers and seas annually.
A previous response revealed that seven million tonnes of raw sewage is dumped into NI waters every year. And a government report found that none of NI’s 496 rivers, lakes and coastal waters have achieved a “good overall status” rating for water quality.
However, spillage figures are calculated based on a 20-year average and it is therefore impossible to tell whether yearly incidents are increasing in frequency or decreasing. Environmentalists suspect the latter due to increased flooding events brought about by climate change.
The answer states that NI Water has initiated an Event Monitoring project as a pilot programme, which involved the installation of Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) equipment at Wastewater Pumping Stations, Emergency Overflows (EOs), and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).
Mrs Mallon said: “The EDM data allows NI Water to monitor and record the frequency and duration of spills into Northern Ireland’s rivers and seas on a real time basis. This facilitates the pro-active management of potential environmental impacts, and helps to inform future investment upgrades.
“NI Water are currently working with NIEA to agree the prioritisation of locations for the installation of EDMs during the PC21 period. NI Water has advised that they are currently updating the Pollution Management Strategy and there will be a new action added regarding the interpretation and use of the EDM data for operational purposes.”
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) regulate NI Water Discharges under the Water Order 1999. NI Water says all sewer systems are designed with emergency spill points known as network combined sewer overflows (CSOs) or as Emergency Overflows (EOs) at wastewater pumping stations.
“These overflows are required to reduce the risk of sewage escaping from sewers and causing the flooding of homes, schools and businesses with sewage during periods of heavy rainfall,” a spokesperson explained.
“Out of sewer flooding would represent a significant public health issue to those inhabiting or working in the affected properties.
“It is a regulatory requirement that overflows are designed to operate in heavy rainfall conditions; at this time, wastewater in sewer networks is significantly diluted with stormwater, protecting public health by preventing out of sewer flooding in properties.
“However, there are a number of Unsatisfactory Intermittent Discharges (UIDs) across Northern Ireland. UIDs result when a CSO or an EO discharges at a frequency that is greater than what they have been designed for.”
The Utility Regulator has determined that NI Water needs to invest just over £2bn to address a range of investment priorities. This includes approximately £300m for a programme of work to address 136 UIDs, which have been prioritised in agreement with NIEA.
An NI Water spokesperson said: “However, as a result of the continued underinvestment in sewerage infrastructure, it will require an ongoing programme of work over multiple Price Control periods to address all of the UIDs.
“The Government is the shareholder and owner of NI Water and therefore is expected to fund our services to the levels set by the Utility Regulator. NI Water welcomes the confirmation by the Executive that funding for year 1 of our business plan has been secured.
“We see this positive funding position at the outset of the six-year programme as a statement of intent and we would hope that the necessary funding would be put in place across the 6 year period to 2027.
“However, we would note that the current operational costs associated with running our assets are underfunded due to an unprecedented rise in energy costs. It is hoped this will be addressed via the January Monitoring round.
“This funding is key. If this situation is not resolved through adequate funding there will potentially be disruption for customers in the supply of water and an increased risk of sewer flooding and environmental damage.”
A Department for Infrastructure spokesperson said the impact of rising energy costs has placed the sustainability of an effective and efficient water and sewerage service under increased pressure.
"The Minister continues to engage with Executive colleagues to ensure adequate funding is available to NI Water to deliver this essential public health utility,” she added.