Wednesday, 18 November 2020
As we know, climate change means that flooding is going to be an increasingly frequent issue. The Minister of State has asked us for solutions and I am going to lay out some that are very easily implemented by his Department.
It is regrettable that a review of the Arterial Drainage Act did not make it into the programme for Government because as we all know, most of the issues around flooding and how it is managed stem from that Act. We have cut our rivers off from their natural flood plains and until we address and amend that Act and make it fit for purpose, the OPW will continue to receive criticism. That said, I do have some solutions that the OPW could implement without any change to the aforementioned legislation if the Minister of State is minded to instruct it to do so.
First, I ask the Minister of State to address the lack of transparency around the programme of works under the arterial drainage scheme maintenance programme. Why can the Department not put up on its website a fully transparent portal outlining the programme of works, what works are to be carried out, when they will be carried out, what environmental assessments have been done for those works and the findings of same? Why is it that members of the public and environmental NGOs are forced to go through the FOI process to get appropriate assessment reports? Why is that there is no accountability when appropriate assessment screening is substandard? Why is there no accountability when the OPW does not even do what it said it would do in an assessment? This was the case in Newport, County Limerick. Newport was a disaster zone from start to finish and I know my comrade, Senator Gavan, will want to raise that with the Minister of State.
It appears that the OPW is above reproach when it comes to carrying out works. It prepares reports but faces no sanctions for the poor quality of these reports or for not following through on their contents. If diggers are going to be put into a river in a special area of conservation, SAC, then there is going to be a significant impact. Therefore, a full Natura impact statement should be prepared. We have seen ample evidence online, thanks to the work of citizens and NGOs, of the catastrophic damage being done along river courses by the OPW.
I ask the Minister of State to update us on the progress of the natural water retention plans. I agree with Senator Garvey that we need a mix of hard and soft engineering solutions. Natural water retention refers to measures that aim to safeguard and enhance the water storage potential of landscapes, soil and aquifers, by restoring ecosystems, natural features and characteristics of water courses. The use of green infrastructure allows nature to regulate the flow and transport of water and improves water quality. Studies have shown that when carried out appropriately, natural water retention can slow the flow down and hold the water in the landscape for between 12 and 24 hours. Natural water retention also has knock-on benefits on climate regulation, soil erosion prevention and it enhances biodiversity.
We know that the natural water retention measures, NWRM, working group met three times last year but how many times has it met this year and when will we see proposals come forward? When flood relief schemes are being assessed for their feasibility for natural water retention measures, who is carrying out that feasibility assessment and are they specialists in that field? We know that nature-based solutions are effective in reducing flooding, particularly in our small catchment areas. The cost savings are immense when one takes account of the role played by nature-based solutions in reducing the occurrence of smaller, frequent floods or what they call "nuisance floods" in the United States. Their role in addressing the larger catchments or the once in a hundred year floods is still unknown as we do not have the data but there are promising signs. That said, it is vital that nature-based catchment management projects are community led and that communities are included in the process. This holds true for hard landscaping measures too. Nature-based solutions are not about flooding farmland but about working with farmers to install soft engineering measures. I ask the Minister of State to update us on the progress of the water retention plans.