Wednesday, 13 October 2010
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue tonight. It is not often I get an opportunity to raise an issue in this Chamber that concerns my own parish, so I am delighted to have that chance. This serious matter relates to the embankments on the Fergus estuary, which cover the inner part of the Shannon estuary from outside Ennis.
In the 1960s the Office of Public Works, OPW, did a major upgrade on the embankments from Clarecastle to Islandavanna, and I compliment the work done at the time, along with the ongoing work on the embankments on the Fergus estuary. I am delighted to see the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Martin Mansergh, is in the Chamber because he is in charge of these matters. Unfortunately, when the Office of Public Works did the work it ran out of money, or some parishioners have said the money was diverted. As a result, the job was unfinished. Through the years many efforts have been made by the local people, landowners and politicians to continue the upgrading but unfortunately, successive Governments have turned a blind eye to the issue. I remember as a young man being part of a deputation to the Office of Public Works on St. Stephen's Green, where we spoke with the late Joe Bermingham when he was a Minister of State. He was a colleague of the Acting Chairman. That is how long this problem is ongoing.
I raised this matter last year and at my request the Office of Public Works carried out a feasibility study on the conditions of the embankments and cost of repair. Unfortunately, the study found the cost of the works required on the embankments would outweigh the benefits that would accrue. This was a short-sighted view and although I understand the OPW has existing commitments to prioritise flood relief works in other areas, these embankments should be treated as a priority. I praise the work done by the OPW and the contracts signed recently for upgrading the Fergus embankments in Ennis; that came about as a result of the flooding from this time last year and I hope the work will continue.
The river could flood many houses in the urban areas but in rural areas much land - the livelihood of many farmers - can be flooded. Unfortunately, last weekend there was a very high tide covering the embankments in the area which resulted in a number of breaches in very weak areas. Nothing has been done with many of the banks through the years and with winter approaching and the likelihood of windy and stormy weather, more damage will be done. Hundreds of acres of land are likely to be flooded if some emergency works are not carried out on these embankments, which will result in farmers' livelihoods being affected. It is a significant issue in my own parish. I am not talking about just a few landowners but rather many farmers stretched over many miles.
I do not expect that in these recessionary times the OPW will be able to put in much money but I expect that following the feasibility study, some funding for emergency works will be provided to deal with current breaches. There is an old saying that a stitch in time saves nine and if breaches are allowed to continue, it would cost much more to fix damage done to the land. We are in a recession and landowners do not have excess money to fix these breaches because it is expensive to do so. The OPW has the dredgers to deal with the issue and has done great work in the areas along Clarecastle and Islandavanna.
I am delighted to see the Minister of State here tonight and I ask him if it is possible for him to procure emergency funding to fix the breaches in the embankments. There has been significant waste in public finances and a small amount of money would make a big difference to farmers in the region. I am pleading with him in my capacity as a parishioner in the area for any money to fix those breaches and prevent a bigger catastrophe later.
Martin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Breen for raising the matter of breaches to the Fergus embankments this past weekend. I welcome the raising of such issues in the Dáil as before December 2009 such issues were practically never raised, and certainly not in my time as Minister of State.
This matter had not been brought to the attention of the Office of Public Works and it is understood that Clare County Council was also unaware of the event. The primary role for the immediate response to a serious flood event rests with the relevant local authority, which is in this case Clare County Council. In line with national flood policy, the OPW works with local authorities and other State bodies to implement programmes to mitigate future flood risk. In this regard, the OPW, in addition to implementing a range of non-structural measures, carries out a programme of major capital flood relief projects, such as the Ennis flood relief scheme, the second phase of which is currently at tender stage. The aim is to ensure that the preferred solution is one that will afford the required level of protection while also addressing any environmental issues and providing the best value for money.
The Office of Public Works also maintains those drainage schemes undertaken by the office under the arterial drainage Acts, including elements of the Fergus embankment system. Although designed primarily for drainage of agricultural land, these schemes also provide a degree of flood protection. The embankments in the Fergus system fall into three categories. There are those which are the responsibility of the Office of Public Works, those forming part of the Fergus drainage district and those that were in the past the responsibility of the Land Commission.
Following a survey in 1999, a comprehensive programme of major refurbishment works was carried out by Office of Public Works on approximately 14 km of those embankments for which the office is responsible at a total cost of approximately €1 million. The Office of Public Works continues to carry out weekly inspections of these embankments and, where maintenance works are considered necessary, they are undertaken as part of the office's annual programme of maintenance works, in accordance with its statutory obligations under the arterial drainage Acts.
Responsibility for maintenance of the embankments between Clarecastle and Ennis, which form part of the Fergus drainage district, rests with Clare County Council. It has been agreed recently with Clare County Council that a section of these embankments, which is closely linked to and impacts on the Ennis flood relief scheme, will be included in proposed additional flood defences for the town that will be undertaken by the Council with funding from the Office of Public Works.
The embankments that were formerly maintained by the Land Commission include those at Ballynacally, Inishdea, Kildysert and Carrickerry. Following the abolition of the Land Commission, maintenance works in some places have been carried out on these embankments by the relevant landowners. Following representations of behalf of property owners, the Office of Public Works undertook a preliminary study on the feasibility of upgrading the former Land Commission embankments in these areas, which was completed in 2008.
The study examined 27 separate embankments with a total length of approximately 30 km. These embankments generally protect polders or areas reclaimed from the estuary. No dwellings were found to be at risk of flooding in these areas. The study found that the cost of bringing the embankments up to the same standard as the embankments for which the Office of Public Works is responsible would exceed the benefit that would accrue, in most instances by a wide margin. It was concluded that upgrading the embankments to that standard could not be justified having regard to demands on the Office of Public Works for priority flood mitigation works at other locations.
In 2009, the Office of Public Works introduced the minor flood works scheme to provide funding to local authorities to address localised flood problems, where a solution had been identified or could be readily identified. The level of protection afforded by these works varies having regard to the level of risk in each location. To qualify for funding under this scheme, the local authority's proposals must be economically viable and environmentally sustainable.
In 2010 to date, in excess of €11.5 million has been allocated to local authorities under this scheme with approximately €600,000 allocated to Clare County Council. It is open to Clare County Council to apply for funding for mitigation works to those Fergus embankments not maintained by the Office of Public Works that meet the eligibility criteria of the minor flood works scheme. If an application were submitted by the council, it would be given every consideration having regard to the overall funding available to the Office of Public Works for flood risk management. The scheme is still open for further applications this year