Changes in Irish Water Law
The Water Services Act 2007 represents a major change in regulations concerning use of water in Ireland, which will have profound impact on business and domestic water usage into the future. The provisions of the Act dovetail with the EU’s , which gives legal weight to the polluter pays principle. This principle requires that commercial and domestic water users not only pay for their water supply, but for the cost of treating the waste water that they produce. The aim of the WFD is to minimise the impact of human water use on the environment, by having the user pay for treatment of waste water.
While some aspects of the Act have been implemented, there are many provisions that remain to be, so that its full impact has not been felt. Businesses, not least, car washing & valeting services, will be concerned with the laws that the Act introduces concerning wasting water, conservation of water, and water pollution. Of particular significance for households will be what the Act has to say about water rates and water metering.
Under the Act any person wilfully wasting or permitting water wastage commits a legal offence. In particular, mention is made of wastage due to leaking or inadequate pipes, valves, etc., or poor management of operational systems. The water service provider – usually a local authority – may direct (with force of law) that the owner or occupier of a premises upgrade their plumbing or works to a standard determined by the service provider to eliminate leaks and waste of water, and/or to introduce more water-efficient work practices. Moreover, the water service provider may restrict the amount of water supplied to the premises, usually with notice, but with immediate effect if concerned that human health, the environment or the integrity of the water provision system are threatened. Any financial costs or losses due to the restriction or even cutting-off of a water supply in these circumstances are borne by the owner or occupier in question.
Conservation of Water
The Minister for the Environment is given significant powers to alter established patterns of water usage in order to conserve water. S/he can not only issue directives about water conservation, but can require the introduction of specific devices or systems to reduce water use. The Minister can also require the introduction of technologies or systems to collect, treat (to a specified standard), and re-use (for purposes other than human consumption) “storm water” (i.e. rainwater) or “grey water” (water already used on a premises, but not in toilets or urinals, and not otherwise seriously contaminated by use).
Already familiar is the provision that, if there is a water shortage or threat of water shortage, a water service provider may prohibit using a hosepipe to water a garden, parks or sports grounds, water or spray crops, or to wash a car or other vehicle. And, as many commercial car washes will have experienced during and after the cold snaps of the last couple of winters, water service providers can prohibit or restrict water use in commercial car washing services during times of shortage.
A significant change introduced by the Act concerns the water run-off from trade premises. Prior to this Act, collection and treatment of run-off water were typically of concern only to highly regulated sectors such as agriculture, heavy industry, or the chemical industry. The Act now provides that any discharge, by any premises, of trade effluent or other matter into a sewer owned or controlled by the water authority or any storm drain, will be an offence, unless it is done under licence. And such licences are granted subject to the environmental or human effects of such discharges, and can be refused or reviewed. This provision will have a direct and serious impact on car washing businesses, which will have to collect and treat any runoff that is contaminated with toxic chemicals.
Consequences for businesses
To recap, the Water Services Act 2007 will have significant impact on businesses when fully implemented, especially those which are traditionally heavy water-users. Businesses will have to:
- Cut out water wastage
- Introduce water-efficient technologies and work practices
- Collect, treat and (where possible) establish means of re-using run-off from their various processes, and not allow run-off to enter sewer systems or drains
- Collect and, where appropriate, use storm water
- Bear the costs of implementing the above measures
The Act also provides for the introduction of water metering and water charges. Once introduced, water meters are mandatory and the local authority can recoup the costs of supplying and fitting the meters via a rental charge, though the Act allows that meters might be supplied free of charge. What people may not be aware of is that the Act also allows for metering of domestic waste water. All the water from a household that ends up entering the drains or sewers can be metered and users can be charged accordingly. This is already the case in the UK, for instance, where the charge for waste water can be as high as the charge for a water supply in the first place. The challenge then for households will be to
- not to waste water
- be water-efficient
- re-use grey-water
- collect and use rainwater (other than for human consumption)