Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Flood Risk Management
I wish to address the flooding issues in County Clare, in particular the River Shannon flooding at Springfield, Clonlara, but also the flooding of the Limerick to Ennis railway track at Ballycar and, if I have time, I will also address the coastal flooding at Ballyvaughan and Kinvara, as well as the coastal protection at Spanish Point and Doughmore beach in west Clare.
Springfield, Clonlara, was flooded in the winter of 2015 and 2016. River surveys, hydrology evaluation and cost-benefit analyses have been carried out in this area. Two issues need to be addressed. The first is the erection of an embankment and associated works at Springfield, Clonlara. When will planning permission be sought and when will this work commence? The second issue is in regard to a pinch point at Plassey involving 70% obstruction of the River Shannon. Until this is addressed, there will be flooding upstream at Clonlara and Castleconnell. A feasibility study is to be carried out as to how to address this issue but when will it be carried out and completed? The river bank and bed have not been properly maintained, allowing an island to develop in the middle of the River Shannon, as the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, has seen. The embankment is flood mitigation but clearing the pinch point will give lasting flood relief. When will action be taken on both of these issues?
The other issue is in regard to Ballycar, where the railway line is being obstructed by flooding. This interrupts the service between Limerick and Ennis almost every year for months on end. This line is part of the rail link between Limerick and Galway, carrying more than 400,000 passengers, and it is one of the Irish Rail lines that is growing year on year. The western rail corridor is part of this line, which will potentially extend to Claremorris and Tuam, and which is being promoted by the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. This flooding needs to be urgently addressed. Irish Rail, the Office of Public Works, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Clare County Council and the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, need to get together to solve this issue.
I will not blame the Minister of State for the rain that falls. While we can blame him for many things, I do not think we can get around that one by suggesting he has the power to stop the rain. Like Deputy Harty, I am dealing with ongoing problems. I acknowledge that the Minister of State works well with me, as the Fianna Fáil spokesman on the Office of Public Works and flood relief, and we share many views. I just wanted to put that on record.
We will not discuss Lough Funshinagh because the Minister of State arranged a meeting and we know what has to happen, given it is a very difficult situation for the farmers. I want to mention Tarmonbarry on the Roscommon-Longford border. The Minister of State was good enough to visit recently to see the problems there. When does he think that work can be tackled and how quickly can we get going on it? I understand we have to go through a procedure. The other area of concern is Jamestown on the Roscommon-Leitrim border, again on the River Shannon. There are difficulties there that require the carrying out of works. I accept it is difficult to control the water levels of the River Shannon, and I know the Minister of State has worked well and the agencies have worked well with him. However, the fear is that this flooding is going to expand. As the Minister of State knows, more and more land around Clonown in south Roscommon is being covered by flooding and this has been happening for years. With regard to Tarmonbarry and Jamestown, I understand that we cannot carry out work in one area and not carry it out in the other, because the water will back up again. What is the situation in regard to the work at Tarmonbarry? I would also welcome a comment from the Minister of State in regard to Jamestown, which is on the Roscommon-Leitrim border and has had a lot of flooding.
I am glad to hear it. I will deal with Deputy Murphy's point first and then with the points made by Deputy Harty, who asked about protection measures in County Clare and a number of other issues. I will try to address all of the questions raised.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. At this time of the year, as we approach the winter season, it is opportune that we consider our preparedness as a country to respond to severe weather events, such as flooding. I am aware of the impact flooding can have on individual households and on communities at large. Since taking up my current position, I have visited many such communities and have first-hand experience of seeing the devastation flooding can cause.
On 3 May 2018, I was delighted to launch 29 flood risk management plans and €1 billion in investment in flood risk over the coming decade. These plans are the output from the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, the largest ever flood risk study carried out in the State. The plans set out the measures proposed to address the flood risk nationally and include 118 new schemes to protect towns, villages and cities nationally. They include 19 in the catchment of the River Shannon in particular, in addition to the scheme already under way in Athlone, which is due to be completed in 2021.
I and the Government are working extremely hard to ensure the greatest possible progress is made over the next number of years on the continued delivery of a very ambitious programme of investment in flood defence and flood risk management measures. The commitment of €1 billion in the national development plan to this objective is a clear sign of how high a priority this is for the Government.
Twelve of these schemes have been prioritised as part of this ten-year programme. Engagement with the local authorities is ongoing in regard to Springfield, Ballinasloe, Nenagh, Longford, Rahan, Castleconnell, Mohill, Leitrim, Clonaslee, Carrick-on-Shannon, and Killaloe, and for Limerick city, King's Island and its environs. The OPW has completed a scheme at Portavolla in Banagher and I am also working with Roscommon County Council on the Athleague scheme.
Along the banks of the Shannon, procurement is scheduled to commence in the coming months to appoint engineering consultants for the design, development and planning of flood relief schemes in Limerick city and environs; Leitrim village; Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim; and Killaloe-Ballina, in counties Clare and Tipperary. Local authorities have been supported through funding from the OPW under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme in putting in place more than 540 local-scale flood protection projects, protecting more than 6,800 properties nationally. The funding available from my office to the office of minor works projects has increased from €2 million to €5 million per annum. This is a huge endorsement by the local authorities, and I encourage all local authorities in this regard because sometimes they do not realise that money is available for minor works. People do not come into my Department to discuss this. I would like to see them do so more often.
As Deputy Eugene Murphy mentioned, this year to the end of September, average rainfall was 820 mm in areas of the Shannon catchment area. This year we have had a lot more rain - 1,050 mm in certain areas. That is more than 230 mm, or 9 or 10 inches, above average.
The Government established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group in 2016 to support plans already in place to address flooding on the Shannon and to enhance the ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon. The group has taken a number of significant decisions since its establishment, including targeted maintenance activities at a number of locations; trialling the lowering of levels on Lough Allen; studies to explore managing flood risk at the Callows; and a study on the cause, degree and rate of restriction downstream of Parteen Weir. I thank all those involved in the working group.
The group is also considering a feasible long-term maintenance programme for the River Shannon. Work done includes Maddens Island and Meelick Weir, where tonnes of silt, dead trees and other material have been removed, along with six other areas along the Shannon. Removing pinch points will drop levels on the Callows, benefiting the environment, wildlife and the farming community. I hope that report will be with me in the not-too-distant future.
My specific questions concerned Springfield, Clonlara, and when the feasibility study will be carried out to deal with the pinch point at Plassy. It makes common sense, if flooding on the Shannon is to be dealt with, to deal with the lower river before dealing with the upper river. This does not seem to be happening, though. The Department is dealing with issues around Meelick Weir but needs to deal with issues farther down the river, where the obstruction to the flow is greatest.
My second point concerned Ballycar. At what stage is planning to address this issue? What meetings has the Minister of State had on addressing the flooding at Ballycar? If that rail line is to be interrupted year-on-year, it will make the service unreliable. It carries 400,000 passengers a year, and that is growing every year, linking Limerick with Galway.
The two issues are the feasibility study on the pinch point at Plassy and the Ballycar rail line flooding.
I will be very brief because I know I have only a minute. The Minister of State might, if he can, give me an answer as to when he thinks the work in Termonbarry will be done. I accept the Department probably cannot do Termonbarry and Jamestown together. One has to be done before the other, going back to the point Deputy Harty made about the levels of the river.
The Minister of State mentioned something about the low-cost scheme. He indicated that local authorities may not be using it to the extent they should be using it. One often sees a side road that is flooded, and it goes back to the Shannon. It is a question of the water making its way around, through drains from the Shannon, or whichever way the flow is coming, as it makes its way to the Shannon. Is the Minister of State saying such roads are possibly entitled to funding from this low-cost scheme? It is very important that local authorities make submissions in respect of all those roads in order to solve those flooding issues because often it is only a bit of a drain that has to be cleaned out or whatever.
There was to be a Bord na Móna pilot scheme to take out more silt. Where are we with that? There is still a capacity issue with the Shannon.
The questions are getting longer. In fairness to Deputies Harty and Eugene Murphy, we have about seven, perhaps eight, schemes ongoing in Clare, some of which have gone to planning. Some are going to construction and some out to consultants.
Regarding the area Geraldine Quinlivan is from, Clonlara, I am very hopeful that a report will be on my desk in the not-too-distant future and that it will contain a positive response on the matter. I have also looked at the pinch points in that area and I am working with my Department on that.
I cannot give Deputy Harty an answer to his question on the railway line because I did not know it would come up today. I can tell him, however, that talks on that have been constructive and I hope we will have something positive to tell him about that.
The minor works scheme does not protect roads unless there are culverts on them. There may be blockages.
I was in Termonbarry and saw at first hand the issue there. We will apply for a licence and look at the works in that regard. As Deputies will be aware, if we do Jamestown first, we will have problems in Termonbarry. I am not prepared to do that. I will look at one and then the possibility of doing the other. We must work with Waterways Ireland on that.
I stress to the Deputies that we are in high waters. For this time of year the rainfall is higher than normal. I always say when people criticise me that we are only three days away from a flood. At the same time, the amount of work taking place down the Shannon, right across the Shannon catchment area, including in Limerick, is enormous. People should see the works we did at Meelick. There they will see that tonnes and tonnes of silt, peat and other material have been taken out of there. It has been a huge success. The depth at Meelick Weir was 2 ft. It is now back to 10 ft, which is what it always was. There was a buildup due to a lack of maintenance on the Shannon. People say we should have a single agency for the Shannon. We should not. To have one would be to tie ourselves up in red tape and legalities. What we are doing collectively as a group is massive and is moving things forward.
Regarding the pinch points we all talk about so much nowadays, there are 22 on the Shannon, 16 of which are significant. I am waiting for a report on this to come onto my desk. I want to see these 16 pinch points dealt with because in removing them we will drop the levels of the Shannon downstream of Athlone right down to where Deputy Harty lives. We are talking about dropping the level of the Shannon a foot and a half. The number of people who would benefit from this - the local farmer, the local business, BirdWatch Ireland - is enormous. The Government is committed to putting huge money into this. I must praise the Taoiseach because not a week goes by that he is not on to me asking me different questions about this and ensuring we get on top of everything. It is not easy but we are working together. I acknowledge Deputy Harty and in particular Deputy Eugene Murphy, who has worked closely with me on the Shannon over recent years and has given me no problems, only worked with me in trying to help me enhance projects. I thank him for that.