Included in Northern Ireland Water’s annual report for 2014/2015 was a statement from the company’s new CEO, Sara Venning. “Over the past two years we have continued our journey towards becoming a modern efficient water utility on a par with any to be found on these islands or across the world. The facts speak for themselves; as a company NI Water delivers a significantly better service than five years ago at a significantly reduced cost to its customers.”
Her statement referred to an increased closing of the water delivery efficiency gap with England and Wales from 49% in 2007 to just 13% in 2015, while the average customer bill went down during 2014/15 by 11.7%. Venning said she was aware that “the journey is not complete,” that the company is committed to “innovate, invest, and inspire our organisation” to continue with improvements that reflect customer needs and desires regarding water supply and treatment.
One way the company is building on its progress is to create a Long Term Water Strategy, which they did in 2015. The Northern Ireland government’s Utility Regulator established a six year price control period to support it. This plan is already being carried out via major infrastructure projects to reduce leaks and improve water quality and sewerage treatment across Northern Ireland. From 1973, when it was first established, NI Water has passed significant milestones.
Before 1973, the provision of water and sewerage services in Belfast (Northern Ireland’s capital) were the responsibility of the Belfast Water Commissioners. Water services outside of Belfast were provided by local councils.
In 1973, Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment took over responsibility for all water-connected services. By 1999 the work had been rebranded as Northern Ireland Water Services and responsibility shifted to the Department for Regional Development (now called the Department for Infrastructure). At this time water was free of cost to consumers.
During the years 2002 through 2007, the state contemplated charging for water and sewerage services, but a huge public outcry postponed those plans. In 2007 the government set up a regulating body, the Authority for Utility Regulation, which compared Northern Ireland’s water system with those of English and Welsh companies. The report noted a performance gap in potable and wastewater quality, leakage, customer service, and company efficiency.
In 2010 the company imposed its price controls, established by the Utility Regulator, to be evaluated periodically. Prior to each evaluation, NI Water provides the Utility Regulator with a business plan, showing the work required to keep up and increase its water and wastewater standards during the next period. The Utility Regulator evaluates the plan and determines a proposed price structure that will meet the plan.
In 2012-2015 the government identified and built private borewells (boreholes) for households in the country that had no access to public water mains. Eighty householders obtained wholesome water supply for the first time, while the government acquired new geologic information to guide future development.
Current Company Structure & Projects
Today NI Water is much bigger and more efficient than it was in 2007. Today, with its 1,300 member staff, the company supplies 1.8 million customers in 818,000 households and businesses. It processes more than 560 million litres of potable water per day and treats 318 million cubic metres of wastewater per year. The infrastructure network contains 26,700 kilometres of water mains and 15,200 kilometres of sewer mains. Water is treated in 23 facilities with 360 pumping stations. Wastewater is treated in 656 facilities with 1,277 pumping stations. In addition, the company manages and maintains 346 service reservoirs and owns 27 impounding reservoirs.
To improve wastewater treatment, NI Water recently completed a new wetlands system in Stoneyford, consisting of two settlement ponds and five treatment ponds. Because the designers based it on processes that occur in natural wetlands (utilising interaction of water, plants, microorganisms, the sun, the earth, and the air) the system ended up being low in cost and using hardly any energy. It looks natural, is aesthetically pleasing and is rich in biodiversity.
Current projects include improving security of water supply infrastructure for its South Belfast area and working in Newtownabbey to improve the water mains infrastructure there. The company estimates that it spends about £2 million per week on water and wastewater infrastructure. Between now and the year 2020, NI Water plans to invest £3 billion more in infrastructure repairs to reduce leaks and improve water quality.
The company just awarded a £18.6 million contract for leak detection services to three local contractors: RPS Environmental Management, Larsen Water Management, and Crowder & Company. Technopath provides the company with water testing kits, and GoPower supplies its electricity. All of these projects and new contracts are communicated to its customers via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.
In addition to providing news about upcoming company and water supply improvement projects, NI Water posts Facebook and Twitter messages that engage customers to improve their health, conserve water, and take part in company events. Recent posts have encouraged customers to stay hydrated during warm weather and have promoted outdoor summer musical events for the public.
The company also encourages and makes it easy for the public to check on where the water for their location comes from and how it is treated. It shows them how to water lawns properly and gives regular tips on how to keep the environment clean and where to swim (or not). Customers are encouraged to conserve water and report water leaks. Any blockages in the system are reported on social media, and customers are able to respond, if they want to.
To further promote its work, the company turned its Silent Valley Reservoir, located in the designated Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, into a popular tourist spot. It built a visitors centre, walking trails, and a coffee shop with homemade meals, open during spring and summer.
In addition to its own work, NI Water supports projects that are water related, like the University of Ulster’s “Step Up” programme and the WaterAid programme in Africa and Asia, all part of its customer outreach program.
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