Farm Ireland

Wednesday 17 January 2018

'If nature was left to do its job we wouldn't have this flooding problem'

Despite the current unusually dry spell, for a group of farmers in Galway it's a question of when, not if, their land will be flooded again

Jarlath Farrell, Dom Dunleavy, Sonny Jennings and John Keane wade through the floodwater at Barbersfort, Cahergal, Co Galway after the River Grange burst its banks last summer. Photo: Ray Ryan.
Jarlath Farrell, Dom Dunleavy, Sonny Jennings and John Keane wade through the floodwater at Barbersfort, Cahergal, Co Galway after the River Grange burst its banks last summer. Photo: Ray Ryan.

Jacqueline Hogge

Heavy rainfall may well be an occupational hazard for Irish farmers, but the lack of drainage on a Co Galway river is flooding up to 100ac of land on a continuous basis in recent years.

The River Clare runs through farmland in Cahergal, near Tuam, where local farmers have blamed years of neglect of the river for repeated flooding of their lands.

A long-reach excavator has begun clearing weeds from the river in recent months, but the farming community has little faith in what they describe as a 'stop-gap measure'.

"We've been calling on the OPW for years to carry out a full and proper drainage of the river and ever since the catastrophic floods of 2009, where homes were destroyed in this area, we've been put on the long finger," said Jarlath Farrell.

"We appreciated the need to tackle areas where homes were at risk first, but this is going on a long time now and each year we're having to take our cattle and sheep off the land once the floods come. This year we had livestock in sheds in late August as the river couldn't cope with the heavy rainfall we've been having and once it breaks its banks huge sections of land are flooded and rendered worthless."

Sonny Jennings said that the irony of the situation was farmers had been paid grants to reclaim land along the River Clare back in the late 1970s and early 1980s and now they were being left to fend for themselves.

"If nature was left to do what it does best you wouldn't have this problem," he said.

"Back then the cattle were allowed into the rivers where they ate the weeds and there was never any problems. But now the rivers are fenced off and EU directives have stopped all that but we're left with overgrown rivers where the water has nowhere to go.

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"The concern now is that the work happening is only removing the weeds, no silt is being taken out of the river and it's pointless exercise that will see us back at square one in a couple of months."

John Keane, whose cattle were forced indoors last month due to flooding, said he has no faith in the current work.

"We were promised five years ago that the river would be dredged as a lot of the river bank had fallen in and that was adding to the problem," he said.

"While we know there has been a lot more rain in recent years, we also know that if the river was properly drained it would be able to cope with the increased water levels, but it's very frustrating being fobbed off the whole time.

"The crazy thing is they are finding the machines and the manpower to clear out the smaller tributaries that feed into the river on a regular basis, but that has no effect on the main river which is the biggest problem here.

"I'm lucky that I have the sheds to house my cattle but I'm not looking forward to a long winter where I've already had to dip into fodder stocks and last year was hard enough, to think we're facing into the same situation again."

Sonny said the amount of work required would not be completed in just one month of work, and farmers were expecting another long winter of floods.

"This is a patchwork job that only happened because we went to the local media and contacted our local councillor, Pete Roche who to be fair kept on at the OPW until they sent out a machine," he said.

"Years ago they had huge dredgers the size of cranes carrying out this work but they were replaced by smaller machines that don't have the same power.

"We've been told by the men currently working on the river that they are limited to four hours a day so there's no way this will be completed before they finish up. If they are to do a proper job, two to three feet of silt needs to be coming out of the river but they aren't allowed to do that as they will disturb fish stocks. It feels as though the fish and the wildlife have better rights than the rest of us and it does get very frustrating when you think about it in those terms."

Dom Dunleavy acknowledged the fact that climate change was also a factor, but said more needed to be done to support farmers who were already struggling to cope with conditions.

"This year's floods have come particularly early and were particularly bad," he said.

"But we can't understand why they can't implement a regular maintenance programme for the river that would go a long way to alleviating this situation."

OPW point to environmental resrictions but farmers vow to keep campaigning

While farmers such as John Keane and Sonny Jennings have suffered from repeated flooding of their lands, there is little sign of a comprehensive drainage scheme being implemented in the area any time soon.

The OPW say that the maintenance works carried out during the month of September on the River Clare at Cahergal would not be extended, due to fishery protection reasons.

"The areas identified as flooding are defined as benefiting land. Benefiting lands would generally have protection against a flood with a return period of three years in rural areas, with a higher level of protection in urban areas," the spokesperson said.

"OPW commenced maintenance work on this channel on August 31, with work continuing until the end of September. Works are not permitted after the end of September for reasons of fishery protection. Further maintenance work on this channel will take place in 2016."

However, the statement has been of little comfort to the Cahergal farmers, who say they will keep campaigning for a proper drainage scheme. "The floods came earlier this year and we were very lucky not to lose our hay, with a field I had bales in completely under water within hours of my sons bringing it into the shed," said Sonny Jennings.

Jarlath Farrell said they would keep the pressure on local politicians and the OPW until a proper drainage scheme was in place.

"We've been knocking on the door a long, long time about this and we will keep knocking until we get what we need to farm our lands without the constant risk of flooding. The maintenance programme they're suggesting is a waste of time when they only focus on the smaller drains leading into the river, we need a proper dredging of the river bed to make a real difference."

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