Fighting Irish? These days, it’s all about water

Everyone may be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but in Denver we’ll be raising a glass to clean, fresh Colorado water.  

March 16, 2016 | By: Jessica Kirk
The author’s grandmother, Mary Catherine “Cay” Maguire Coyle, visiting Ireland in 1989.

I grew up in a home that proudly celebrated our Irish heritage. I am short, only 5 feet (and a half inch), but a giant compared to my grandmother, who was 4 feet 10 inches.

When I came home feeling hurt because someone teased me about being short, my grandmother would tell me, quite seriously, that I was kin to the fairy-folk and should never mind what others had to say about me anyway.

My little sister took a different approach, offering to punch my tormentor in the nose.

Yes, the Irish have been known to jump into (and sometimes start) a fight over real and perceived injustices with an infamous temper and stubbornness.

And guess what the Irish are fighting about today? Water.

Unlike Colorado, Ireland has no shortage of water. In fact, we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day in homage to the Emerald Isle, known for its abundance of rain. The Irish water rebellion is not over equitable distribution of a scarce resource; it’s about preserving the human right to fresh water while addressing real risks to a crumbling water distribution system.

It all started with the 2013 Water Services Act, which transferred water and wastewater services for 31 local authorities to Irish Water, a commercial, for-profit, semi-state company governed by the Commission for Energy Regulation.

Before Irish Water, local authorities funded water infrastructure projects through taxes.

The proponents of Irish Water claim that a national water services authority is necessary to focus investment on modernizing aging, at-risk water infrastructure throughout Ireland. They say that water systems dependent on central funds rely too heavily on politicians who are under pressure to defer maintenance and upgrades of water and sewage services in favor of more politically expedient projects.

Citizens in Dublin protest water charges at the Right2Water rally on March 21, 2015. Photo courtesy Sinn Féin, Creative Commons.
Citizens in Dublin protest water charges at the Right2Water rally on March 21, 2015. Photo courtesy Sinn Féin, Creative Commons.

But a vocal opposition wants to abolish Irish Water, which has levied a water tax on citizens as a way to repay international loans to bail out the country’s economy after the world financial collapse of 2008.  They say the water charges are part of years of austerity measures that hit working class people hardest.

The massive public demonstrations that followed may have played a role in the recent Irish elections, in which the ruling party, Fine Gael, lost 26 seats in the Parliament, known as the Dáil.

Citizens who didn’t take to the streets joined the protest by blocking the installation of meters and refusing to pay the new water charges. In fact, only 50 percent of customers have paid their water bills so far. Others claim that the new taxes are an added insult because Irish water consistently fails testing by the country’s environmental agency.

Fighting Irish, indeed.

In Denver, the city founders recognized the tension between the human right to water and the need to invest in a strong water system when they established Denver Water in 1918.

As a public utility, Denver Water is a government entity owned by the people of Denver and funded by water rates, not taxes.  While we are accountable to a five-member Board of Water Commissioners, appointed by the mayor, we operate independently from the city.

That framework gives us the freedom to plan, finance and maintain necessary water infrastructure without being obligated to short-term political interests.

Additionally, as a major water provider in the West, that framework allows us to do the long-range planning necessary to be responsible protectors of the environment — so that our water stays clean and healthy for future generations.

We wish you a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day in the form of an Irish proverb, of one of my favorite traditions:

May you mix your temperance with a little rebellion

Your sunshine with a little rain

And your whiskey with a little water

Sláinte!

Rainbow over bridge and lake in the Gap of Dunloe, County Kerry, Ireland. (Courtesy ©iStock.com/stevegeer)
Rainbow over bridge and lake in the Gap of Dunloe, County Kerry, Ireland. (Courtesy ©iStock.com/stevegeer)

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