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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Flooding fears rise in the midlands

Water levels are already over a foot higher than normal along the River Shannon

Claire Mc Cormack

Published 26/07/2016 | 02:30

Horse trainer Tom Cleary pictured at his stables in Carrickobrien which was badly hit by last year's Shannon flooding
Horse trainer Tom Cleary pictured at his stables in Carrickobrien which was badly hit by last year's Shannon flooding

Farmers fear their livelihoods will be "washed away" by heavy rain this autumn as the River Shannon is already more than foot higher than this time last year, the Farming Independent has learned.

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New figures from the ESB confirm that water levels along the Shannon Callows - downstream from Athlone to Portumna - are almost 16 inches higher than July 2015.

Water levels at Lough Ree are almost a foot higher.

Although the ESB equate the rise in water levels to heavy rainfall in June, unease is growing on the ground.

Sean Canney, Minister of State at the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief, this month, announced the commencement of public consultations for the newly published draft flood risk management plans, starting with the Shannon and South Western basin districts.

The draft plans are the final stage of public consultation under the Catchment Flood Risk and Management Programme (CFRAM). The Government is providing €430 million for flood risk management measures as part of its overall capital investment plan 2016 - 2021. Total allocation for flood risk management projects and measures this year is €52.6m

Minister Canney is urging all communities, businesses and environmental groups to engage in consultations running until September 23.

Draft plans for the south eastern and north western river basin districts will be available in August, followed by the eastern and western districts in September. Although the OPW say "all options, including dredging," have been considered, farming organisations and local TDs are concerned that environmental designations will prevent or hold back necessary work in flood risk areas, particularly along the Shannon Callows, which are classified as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

For example, dredging is considered "environmentally unviable" along Meelick Weir, downstream of Banagher, and downstream of Rooskey Weir as the areas are part of an SAC.

Speaking at a meeting last week, Joe Healy, IFA president told Minister Canney that the "public good must be paramount" in decisions on the protections of households, farmland and other businesses along the river and surrounding areas. He said consultation on the plans is an opportunity to address the flooding issues, which previous governments have failed to tackle.

Turloughs - a type of disappearing lake found mostly in limestone areas west of the Shannon - have also become a serious threat. Padraic Joyce, IFA Flood Project Chairman, said there are "ongoing problems" where water levels on some turloughs in the west of Ireland have not sufficiently gone down.

Michael Fitzmaurice, Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway, is "extremely disappointed" with the CFRAM plans.

"If this is the best that experts can come up with after costing so much money then maybe it is time to call a halt. They conclude that local rivers cannot be dredged because of environmental concerns. That is totally wrong," he said, adding the plans contain "red-tape".

"It's been proven that doing a small bit of remedial work every year has not worked and we've faced serious and worsening flood problems for the past nine years without achieving anything," he said.

"There is huge sympathy and outpouring of anger when people are flooded but they're forgotten about until the next winter comes around and it's not good enough," he said. He claims a house in Roscommon is still flooded due to a turlough that never went down.

Mr Fitzmaurice - a farmer, turf-cutter and agricultural contractor - is calling for "urgent action" from Minister Canney who he says must "stand up to the mantle". "There is a fear in communities that nothing is being done. It seems to be sliding down the scale. They're not intending to dredge the Shannon for environmental reasons, which flies in the face of common sense. It's full of bushes and silt," he said.

"For farmers that want to cut meadow around Rooskey and in the Callow areas they're in trouble because the land is too wet and they won't get in to mow. If bad weather comes we're in serious trouble," he said.

He is calling for "an overhaul" of the administration with responsibility for the CFRAM plans.

"Not a bucket has been put in the ground since the 2009 floods. If they are not fit deliver then the Government have to make a hard call and get rid of them to speed up the process," he said.

However, An Taisce, the national trust say dredging the Shannon is not the answer. "Given the nature of the Shannon basin and the languid flow along the majority of its length, increasing the speed with which water enters the river through drainage works will only exacerbate flooding along the main river and in the Shannon's lower stretches," said a spokesman.

Tom Turley, IFA Connacht regional chairman who heads up the SAC and flood project teams says objections from environmental lobby groups should "not override" the peace of mind of people in their homes.

"The channel is choked. Since the designation was put on these areas the grasslands have evolved into a different type of landscape than they started out protecting.

"If a farmer's land continually floods they will just abandon it, then we'll have an environmental problem," said Mr Turley, who has farmed along the Callows near Banagher, Co Offaly all his life.

'We'll block the Shannon in protest if action isn't taken'

Horse trainer, Tom Cleary, has spent €60,000, out of his own pocket, to renovate his stables, gallops, walkers, indoor arena, outdoor arena and farmyard - all left decimated by the Shannon floods earlier this year.

Although business has returned to normal, Mr Cleary, who lives in Carrickobrien, Co Westmeath, fears the swollen waters will rear again this autumn unless action is taken to dredge the river.

He says farmers, householders and business owners whose livelihoods were "turned upside down" when the Shannon burst its banks last winter were "reassured" by the Government that remedial work would start on the river this summer but, he says, "so far nothing has happened".

"We've had ministers down but nothing has been done and there doesn't seem to be any real intention to do a whole lot in the near future. We are not happy to accept that," he said.

"Right now the water is level with the banks, it would only take a couple of days rain for it to start pushing in. If they don't do something in the next 4-6 weeks we're in trouble come September, we could be wiped out again" he said.

Communities feel let down.

"After all that we went through, we're very surprised that not one spoon of silt has been taken out of the river yet, and there hasn't been in over 100 years. It was an emergency and it will happen again," said Tom, who is a member of the newly formed Shannon Flood Alliance. The group represents flood victims in Cork, Clare, Leitrim. Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Sligo and other flood risk areas.

The alliance group requested a meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny following the recent publication of the CFRAM draft reports. They hope to meet him this week to "stress the importance" of cleaning the River Shannon. He says if action is not taken they are prepared to organise further protests. Rallies were held in Athlone last February and in Banagher, Co Offaly, last April.

"We are considering blocking the Shannon so that cruisers won't be able to pass through, we mean business, they have to do something for us," said the trainer whose horses are taking part in the Galway Races this week.

"It's been a huge expense, everything had to be completely redone. Luckily our house wasn't affected but I've spent over €60,000 out of my own pocket, there is no insurance because we're not in a rateable area," he said.

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