Water Mystery Baffles Engineers as Rainy Dublin Endures

In Dublin, where it rains about every other day, residents and businesses in Ireland’s biggest city enduring a second week of water restrictions don’t know when full service will resume.

City engineers aren’t sure what caused a water-treatment plant at the country’s largest such facility to stop filtering properly and until that’s determined, the supply cutoffs that have upset Dubliners and hurt restaurants will continue.

A production slowdown at Ballymore Eustace, which provides about half of the Irish capital’s water, led the city last week to cut off supplies from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. Water supplies in Dublin are controlled by the local councils.

“We can identify what the problem is, we haven’t been able to fully identify what caused it,” said Padraig Doyle, senior engineer in the water-services division of Dublin City Council. “There are guys up there 10, 20 and 30 years and they say they can’t remember anything like this happening before.”

The slowdown can be traced to engineers’ efforts to remove grit and sand particles from water at the County Kildare plant, Doyle said. Aluminum sulphate and polyelectrolytes are added there to the water, which attract the dirt and form large “sludge blankets.” They’re supposed to float under the surface before being sucked out of the tanks but now aren’t.

“That doesn’t give us confidence that the engineers don’t know what’s happening,” said Adrian Cummins, head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland. “We just don’t have a proper water system.” Restaurants in the city center that ran out of supplies closed Friday and Saturday nights when unable to wash dishes and flush toilets, according to news reports.

‘Sludge Blankets’

The restrictions that may continue through this week have sparked debate about the capital’s supplies as Irish households prepare to pay for water for the first time since 1997.

The government in a country where Met Eireann data shows the average number of wet days ranges from 150 days a year along the east and southeast coasts to 225 days in parts of the west agreed to introduce charges within its 67.5 billion-euro ($91 billion) bailout program following the economy’s near-collapse.

The plant is 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Dublin. Water flows there from a nearby lake. Half to 55 percent of the 550 million liters of water Dubliners use daily passes through the facility before making its way to houses, offices, restaurants and pubs around the city.

Last month, sludge blankets at the plant stopped forming properly, floating to the top of tanks and flowing with the water to the next stage of cleaning. That baffled workers and slowed the flow of water through the plant, Doyle said.

“The treated final water quality is excellent but we cannot get it through the plant quick enough to meet our demands,” Doyle said in an Oct. 31 phone interview.

‘An Inconvenience’

That means trouble for chefs cooking at Emmet Daly’s Neon restaurant on Camden Street in the city center. Wok ranges need a constant flow of water, otherwise ring burners that heat the pans can melt, Daly said by phone. He now brings in extra water.

“It’s an inconvenience,” Daly said, and as the Council appears to lack a backup plan, “people just have to get on and deal with it.”

The restrictions are the second to hit Dublin consumers this year and have caused criticism of the government, which plans to start charging Irish taxpayers for water in 2015. Domestic water charges were abolished in 1997.

“Residents don’t have access to the water they’re about to be charged for,” said Paul Murphy, a Socialist Party member of the European Parliament. The outage is the result of “a chronic lack of investment in the water-treatment and piping system in the country.”

Catherine Ryan, a portfolio manager with Kleinwort Benson Investors in Dublin, agrees. She runs a fund that invests in firms tied to water infrastructure. Governments have to spend trillions of dollars improving how they deliver water to citizens, she said by e-mail.

“Infrastructure rehabilitation is one of the major long-term themes that we are playing in the water fund right now,” Ryan said. “We don’t think about water or where it comes from until there’s a problem, and it reminds us that we can’t function without it.”

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