Tuesday, 2 October 2018
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Inland Waterways Development
66. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her plans to develop a blueway in the waters of Lough Oughter, County Cavan; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39799/18]
The Erne river and lake system from Belturbet to Killykeen and Killashandra, County Cavan is a considerable natural resource. The potential of the waterway is not being realised to any significant extent. As the Minister is aware, feasibility studies have been carried out into the possibility of making that stretch of water navigable. The Minister indicated to me in reply to a previous parliamentary question that Waterways Ireland would engage with Cavan County Council and local interests on the possibility of developing a blueway on that stretch of water. Could the Minister indicate to me how those plans are progressing? I have a second question on a related subject.
Waterways Ireland is responsible for the management, maintenance, development and restoration of some 1,000 km of navigable inland waterways principally for recreational purposes. Waterways Ireland manages and maintains the navigation on the River Erne in County Cavan as part of the Shannon–Erne Waterway. Waterways Ireland public jetties are provided in both Belturbet and Kilconny - Deputy Smith should forgive me if I mispronounce the name - and the navigation channel is provided with navigation markers and signage, as and where required. The upper limit of the managed navigation on the River Erne is currently just below Erne Bridge between Belturbet and Kilconny.
While there is no specific legal obligation on Waterways Ireland to deliver a navigation plan for the Lough Oughter complex, the preparation of a draft navigation plan was initiated in line with the organisation's overall recreational remit in 2008. Waterways Ireland initiated a strategic environmental assessment, SEA, of this draft plan to establish a new navigation on Lough Oughter from Belturbet to Killashandra.
The SEA process indicated that considerable environmental and hydrological assessment would be required to complete any proposed Lough Oughter navigation plan. The expenditure necessary to carry out this work is estimated to be in the region of €300,000 and the result is likely to confirm the initial assessment that significant environmental impact will occur to the designated Lough Oughter habitat and a works project would not be permitted under current environmental regulations.
There may however be potential in the waters of the Lough Oughter area being promoted as a distinct blueway. While I understand from Waterways Ireland that it has no plans to develop a blueway in Lough Oughter, Blueways Ireland, a group that includes the National Trails Office, Canoeing Ireland and a range of other State bodies which is involved in, or with an interest in the development of blueways is currently considering the establishment of blueways beyond the Waterways Ireland network of inland waterways.
To that end Waterways Ireland has met with the chief executive of Cavan County Council, council officials and elected representatives concerning blueways developed successfully on the Waterways Ireland network to advise on possible ways forward. Waterways Ireland is happy to support Cavan County Council with advice should it decide to develop a blueway on the River Erne from Belturbet to Killykeen and Killashandra.
Will the Minister instruct Waterways Ireland to reconsider the feasibility of extending the Erne navigation? I was told in the late 1980s that it was not feasible from an engineering point of view to restore the then Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, which became the Shannon-Erne waterway and has been phenomenally successful, as the Minister is aware. The studies should be revisited on the basis that, given the progress of engineering technology, it may be possible for that stretch of water to be made a navigable continuation of the Shannon-Erne waterway. I appeal to the Minister to ask Waterways Ireland to revisit the issue.
Another issue related to the development of blueways is that Waterways Ireland only has jurisdiction over navigable waterways. The stretch we are discussing is not currently navigable. Therefore, Waterways Ireland would not be responsible for developing the blueway. It would be preferable for it to be the project promoter of a blueway in view of the fact that it is hoped the waterway will be made navigable. I ask the Minister to go back to Waterways Ireland to ask it about the possibility of having the studies revisited and the position in the development of blueways.
I will speak to Waterways Ireland about this issue. Studies were carried out in 2008 and 2009 when the strategic environmental assessment was completed. It became clear in the initial gathering of information that the changes in water levels necessary to create navigation would be unacceptable in the proposed area in view of its level of international conservation designations. The lough has several international conservation designations, including being a candidate for a special area of conservation, a special protection area, a proposed natural heritage area, a Ramsar site and a Natura 2000 site. There are several national and local monuments and sites of historical and archaeological interest in the Lough Oughter area. The initial work also identified the costs associated with completing the studies to which I alluded in my original statement and which would be required for the strategic environmental assessment to be carried out. No further studies have been carried out, which has raised such a level of concern for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Coming from the immediate vicinity of the former Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, now the Shannon-Erne Waterway, I recall that when the studies of making the waterway navigable began, we were told that doing so would flood the countryside and cause awful damage. However, the restoration of the canal has been of benefit to drainage in the area. We were told that the opposite would be the case before the work was carried out. The project was given the go-ahead in 1989, at a time when North-South and east-west relations were very difficult. We may think we have difficult relations with Britain, but that was an entirely different era. The Minister is aware from her visits to County Monaghan and other parts of the country of the success of the Shannon-Erne waterway. The Ulster Canal will now join the network. The addition of the stretch to which I have referred will be a significant complementary asset in the inland waterways system. I appeal to the Minister to go back to Waterways Ireland to ask it to have further studies carried out and to bear in mind that the same concerns were raised in 1989 about the then Ballyconnell-Ballinamore Canal. I have no doubt that, in the light of the progress of engineering technology, the project could be made a reality.
I thank my colleague and support him in his call for the development of the blueway. Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne is a local historical group in the area which spends much of its time imparting knowledge of the rich heritage of Lough Oughter. Last summer it brought 50 or 60 people on a tour of the area. Speaking as a person from County Cavan, I learned a great deal on the tour. The lough has huge tourism potential for the county and its rich heritage must be maintained and developed. It is of great importance for the Minister to do whatever she can in support of my colleague's request.
I thank the Deputies. I will pass on their observations to Waterways Ireland which will be updated on the matter. It was clear when the studies were carried out that the project could not proceed as the environmental damage to the conserved area would be unacceptable and that spending further resources on further studies would be fruitless. There does not currently appear to be a viable option. However, we can re-examine the issue and I will pass on the request to Waterways Ireland. As the Deputies have pointed out, blueways confer benefits in terms of recreational activity. As I stated, Waterways Ireland is responsible for 1,000 km of navigable inland waterways, principally for recreational purposes. Waterways Ireland is continuing work in the Deputies' constituency with Monaghan County Council, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and many other councils in the area to maximise what we can do in terms of blueways and greenways. It is also progressing a project which received Government approval in 2015, namely, to open a navigation on a 2.5 km stretch of the River Finn from the Erne navigation to the international scout centre at Castle Saunderson in County Cavan.