Seanad Éireann - Volume 162 - 27 January, 2000

Adjournment Matters. - Arterial Drainage.

Mr. Finneran: I thank the Cathaoirleach for accepting this matter on the Adjournment. I also thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for being present for this important debate. I wish to raise the need for the Minister for Finance to carry out maintenance under the Arterial Drainage (Amendment) (No. 2) Act, 1995, on the section of the River Shannon between Meelick weir and Athlone town, as a co-operative scheme between the local authorities of Roscommon, Galway, Leitrim, [141] Longford, Westmeath and Offaly and the public bodies – ESB, Bord na Móna and Dúchas.

It is as a result of the serious flooding crisis that has been experienced in the Shannon basin that I raise this matter. During the Christmas and new year period, the people who live in the basin and in the catchment area of the River Shannon and its tributaries experienced flooding of a degree unseen since the 1950s. It is not acceptable in the year 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium, that we should be faced with a situation where the people and children who live ordinary lives in ordinary communities in the areas to which I refer should be obliged to remain housebound as a result of flooding on one of the finest natural waterways in Europe.

As a House of the Oireachtas we have a responsibility to address the cause and effects of flooding. Tonight I will deal with the effects and a proposal that I believe is constructive enough to deal with it at least on the basis of maintenance. There will be another opportunity in both Houses to debate the matter of overall responsibility for the catchment area of the River Shannon and whether we need an authority for the river. Perhaps a decision will be made.

My motion is based on an opportunity that presents itself in the 1995 legislation into which I had a major input in this House. Serious flooding problems can be dealt with on an ad hoc basis under amended arterial drainage legislation. I recall that the late Hugh Coveney, then Minister of State, responded to a direct question of mine. Where local authorities in co-operation with public bodies decided that it was appropriate to carry out maintenance work on a section or sections of the River Shannon, I asked if the legislation would cover that activity. It is on public record that he gave a positive response provided there was co-operation. That is at the heart of my motion.

I call on the local authorities of Roscommon, Galway, Leitrim, Longford, Westmeath and Offaly and the public bodies of the ESB, Bord na Móna and Dúchas to come forward with a scheme that will deal with the serious maintenance neglect of the River Shannon from the Meelick weir to Athlone town. I ask the Minister of Finance to oversee and respond to them if that happens. We all know that over the past 50 years everyone, farmers, industry, tourism, all public bodies and local authorities have contributed to the problem. For 50 years they have used the channel of the River Shannon as their dumping ground. They have allowed all their waste to go into that channel and no one has thought fit to take one shovel of refuse or dumped material out of it. My motion addresses that issue by asking for a co-operative approach under existing legislation.

I am not talking about the drainage of the River Shannon. Local authorities spend many thousands of pounds in each of their catchment areas on roads and in other areas of their activity that have been damaged by flash flooding and a [142] lack of maintenance of the River Shannon. We now have a spill over. We are redressing and rebuilding. We are spending public money in 2000 on works carried out previously in 1996 and 1997. Much money has been spent on upgrading roads and many other areas of public activity. Now we must spend public moneys on those areas again. Surely it is time to call a halt to that when there is a simple solution. Unfortunately, it will not deal with the overall problem.

We have 70,000 acres of Bord na Móna peat land, 250,000 acres of farm land, all the industries along the River Shannon and a tourism industry involving hundreds of boats, but we do not have pump out facilities. All of these factors have contributed to the dumping of material in the channel. This legislation gives us an opportunity to redress that by carrying out a maintenance programme. I am not putting a time limit nor estimating the cost of such a scheme. However, a five-year plan should be considered for carrying out a maintenance programme from the Meelick weir to Banagher bridge to Athlone town. This would alleviate the serious flooding that my constituency of Roscommon/Longford and the other counties I referred to have experienced over Christmas and the new year period.

The Minister of State is responsive to this matter because he appreciates the crisis and the complications involved. I also know that it is not within his jurisdiction alone. All he can do is act as a facilitator. If the local authorities and public bodies have the will to put their heads together then I ask him to act as facilitator. Only then can we discuss the finances necessary to do the job.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Cullen): I thank Senator Finneran for raising this important issue. I know he is deeply concerned about it.

I am delighted to explain to this House the role of the Office of Public Works in relation to the recent flooding on the River Shannon. I sympathise with the victims and I appreciate how traumatic flooding of this magnitude can be. The Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, described graphically to me the problems particular to the Athlone area during the flooding. Senator Finneran did the same.

As Senator Finneran has said, the Arterial Drainage (Amendment) Act, 1995 gives the Commissioners of Public Works the power to prepare a drainage scheme for any watercourse or part of a watercourse where they are of the opinion that such a scheme is expedient. This means that any scheme must be cost beneficial, environmentally acceptable and not cause problems elsewhere. It must also be considered that the recent flooding in the Shannon basin was the worst for over 50 years with rainfall for December 1999 being twice the normal average. Much of the area in question floods every year.

The position in relation to the Shannon is that there has been a consensus over a considerable period that capital works to relieve flooding are [143] not viable and there is no evidence to suggest that this position has changed. The most recent of many reports on the Shannon, commissioned by the IFA and carried out by consultants Delap and Waller, concluded that there were no obvious localised engineering works apparent to them which, if carried out, would significantly improve the regime of the river. It is not possible to carry out maintenance work on any river without first setting the standard to which one requires it to be maintained. My office has statutory responsibility for the maintenance of approximately 40 arterial drainage schemes which are maintained to the design standard publicly exhibited prior to the execution of the capital works on each of the original schemes. No arterial drainage scheme has been carried out on the River Shannon by the Office of Public Works so it is not possible for it [144] to undertake maintenance works, nor would it have any authority to do so.

However, I am conscious of the particular problems in this part of the Shannon and my office has been in contact with Westmeath County Council in this regard. Should any of the other bodies listed by Senator Finneran in his motion have any proposals or suggestions as to how the problem between Meelick and Athlone might be alleviated, the Office of Public Works will be delighted to consider these proposals or to offer any other advice that might be appropriate. I do not need to remind Senator Finneran or the House of the Government's concern about the difficulties experienced by the people of this area and I welcome the views of all bodies mentioned.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 2 February 2000.