Thursday, 14 January 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Flood Risk Assessments
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important issue. A very serious situation has arisen as a result of the continually rising waters of Lough Funshinagh in County Roscommon, with three homes and farmyards under imminent threat of flooding. There is a risk to a total of seven homes and six farmyards due to the elevated levels of this turlough. As of 4 January 2021, levels are 1.75 m higher than on the same date last year, which was itself a record level. The bulk of the winter rainfall has yet to come. In normal circumstances, the level of water in this former turlough does not peak until March each year. As a result, families who are already being impacted by Covid-19 restrictions are under additional untold psychological pressure as the flood waters outside their doors inch closer and closer.
After my appointment as a Minister in the previous Government, I engaged the Geological Survey of Ireland, GSI, to assess exactly what was happening with this turlough. The GSI completed a very detailed hydrogeological analysis of Lough Funshinagh. It is now imperative that a comprehensive review of the GSI work is carried out to incorporate the current situation, thus providing revised flood maps to take into account the fact that this turlough is now rising year on year and properties which would not have been considered to be under threat up to now, based on the original assessment, are now incorporated into this re-evaluation, due to the changing hydrology of the area. It was clear from the study that the turlough would not rectify itself and as a result, working with the former Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Kevin Boxer Moran, I ensured that funding was provided to Roscommon County Council to appoint consultants to conduct a comprehensive analysis of potential solutions to address the flooding situation within the catchment of Lough Funshinagh. The consultant's report was published last September and indicated that the cost-benefit assessment did not justify the construction of an outlet for the excess water. However, the situation has changed dramatically since then, with the unimaginable prospect that this year could see all previous flood record levels broken. As a result, there must now be a complete review of the original cost-benefit analysis for the overflow pipe from Lough Funshinagh to Lough Ree. Such a review should not be completed in advance of the aforementioned revised mapping exercise based on the GSI data or the development by the Office of Public Works, OPW, of a revised cost-benefit analysis mechanism that clearly reflects the unique challenges of turlough flooding which is not accounted for in the current cost-benefit analysis.
Also required is the reopening of the voluntary home relocation scheme; the establishment of a voluntary farmyard relocation scheme as agreed by Cabinet in 2016; specific funding provisions to help address the farming challenges within the catchment of the lough arising from the dramatic change in water levels including, at the very minimum, a mechanism to allow famers, as a force majeure measure, to start their basic payment scheme entitlements; and the complete reassessment by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, of the special area of conservation, SAC, and national heritage area, NHA, designations in light of the permanent flooding of the turlough that has caused the destruction of all trees, shrubs and grassland as well as the rare plants in the area which, together, gave the turlough its unique status as an SAC and NHA designated area.
We need a comprehensive assessment and a long-term solution to this problem. We cannot, under any circumstances, continue in a piecemeal fashion, relocating one or two properties every year until the existing community is completely relocated.
I thank Deputy Naughten. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, has asked me to apologise on his behalf. He cannot be here to contribute to this debate in person for reasons related to the pandemic. I understand that he has been in contact with the Deputy regarding this matter on a number of occasions since 4 January. The Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy O'Donovan, and I are very aware of the significant impact on communities and distress arising from flooding and the continuing risk of flooding. I have seen at first hand the impact of flooding on people and their homes and farms and I convey my deepest sympathy to all of those in the area who are being affected by flooding and the risk of flooding from Lough Funshinagh.
Local flooding issues are, in the first instance, a matter for each local authority to investigate and address. All local authorities, including Roscommon County Council, may carry out flood mitigation works within their own capital works programmes and using their own resources or apply for funding under the Office of Public Works, OPW's minor flood mitigation works scheme.
With regard to Lough Funshinagh, Roscommon County Council applied for funding to carry out a study, funded by the minor flood mitigation works scheme, to establish if there were some environmentally acceptable measures which would provide a suitable benefit in light of their cost and which could be taken to protect the properties that flooded in the Lough Funshinagh area from a flood of a similar magnitude to that which occurred in 2016. A range of flood mitigation options were considered in the study, but it was determined that the options were not economically or environmentally sustainable. The study identified that the extreme high-water levels, while rare, are within the naturally occurring range. There is no evidence to suggest that the flooding was due to an abnormal decrease in the outflow rate from the lough other than that due to the possible seasonal variation in the subsurface water level.
It remains open to Roscommon County Council to make an application under the minor flood mitigation works scheme should further measures be identified in the future which meet the scheme criteria to mitigate flooding.
The applications of those property owners in the locality of the lough who have applied for the Government's voluntary homeowners relocation scheme are being advanced. For those farmers whose land and farm buildings have flooded and are at risk, I understand that the introduction of a voluntary farm building relocation scheme is being progressed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I understand that the Deputy has been in contact with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in this regard and in respect of measures to help address the farming challenges within the catchment of the lough. I am advised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that it continues to monitor the situation with regard to the flooding of farmland in general and of farmyards, where it arises. A study to determine the feasibility of any future once-off targeted schemes for voluntary farm building relocation is being undertaken. The Department has evaluated a range of at-risk farmyards impacted by flooding to see if any alternative remedial works can be undertaken to protect farm buildings at risk of flooding. It is currently considering this evaluation.
The Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy O'Donovan, had two meetings with the chairman of the OPW and senior officials on this matter yesterday. The OPW will be meeting with Roscommon County Council shortly and, through the council, with all relevant stakeholders with a view to considering ways to address the flooding problem. I am assured that, should an application to the OPW's minor flood mitigation works scheme be received from the council, it will be assessed as soon as possible.
I am grateful to all of those who have contributed on this important matter. I fully appreciate the impact flooding around Lough Funshinagh is having on the people and properties in this area.
Minor works are no good here. I ask the Minister of State to take the six suggestions I have put to him back to the Minister and to feed them into the meetings that are going to take place next week.
The Minister of State represents the Green Party and a senior Minister of that party, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is here as well. There is something their colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, can do regarding this issue. Prior to 2015, the turlough flooded to predictable levels in winter and drained in the summer. Peak winter levels varied by no more than 1.5 m between very dry years and very wet years. The flood pattern allowed for the rare plants outlined in the turlough's designation as an SAC to flourish. From the winter of 2015 to the present day, however, the turlough has effectively become a lake with the summer level now at a height equivalent to the extremely high winter level. The current destruction of all plant life cannot be allowed to continue as it calls into question the status of the lake as a protected area. It was the responsibility of the State to ensure the protection of the turlough. Surely, it is now the responsibility of the State to restore it to its natural equilibrium. The other option is to do nothing, which will lead to the total and permanent destruction of the habitat and the turlough, which would surely contravene EU directives on turloughs and SACs. The other alternative is to de-designate the lake area as an SAC because of the failure to maintain the water levels at the turlough's designated levels.
We should examine the option of constructing an overflow pipe. This has been costed at approximately €1.3 million. This is a far more cost-effective option than the destruction of the turlough and the relocation of seven families and farmyards at a total cost in excess of €3 million. I plead with the Minister of State to talk with Deputy Noonan in this regard.
My party leader is indeed here beside me so I am being watched but I will take Deputy Naughten's six suggestions back to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. The Deputy clearly cares very strongly about this issue and it is clear that he has engaged extensively with a number of Ministers on this matter. He has also been talking to Deputies Fitzmaurice and Kerrane and Senators Dolan and Murphy and is keeping them all up to date on this matter. He is clearly putting in a lot of effort. I commit to speaking to my good friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. He has responsibility for heritage, designations and so on. I will act as interlocutor between the Minister of State and the Deputy. That is no problem. I look forward to the meeting between Roscommon County Council and all stakeholders with regard to Lough Funshinagh. I hope they can identify solutions to mitigate the flood risk in the area and, in this way, address the significant concerns of the community living in the vicinity of the lough. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.