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19 Jan 2022

Offaly Callows residents call for more action less talk

Offaly Callows residents call for more action less talk

Minister Patrick O'Donovan's boat speeding to Meelick Weir last week, as photographed from the Save Our Shannon Organisation boath

The residents of the Shannon Callows, following Minister Patrick O’Donovan’s visit to Banagher on Thursday, July 29 last have expressed scepticism about some of the Minister's statements and have called for “more action and less talk.”

Mr O'Donovan is Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works. He was joined on his Banagher visit by Pippa Hackett, the Minister of State for Land Use and Diversity, as well as OPW engineers and representatives from Waterways Ireland.

Also present on the day was the Save Our Shannon Organisation (S.O.S.O.) which kept a watching brief in their own boat while the Minister's boat went down the river, at considerable speed. Liam Broderick, PRO of SOSO was in the SOSO boat observing the boat containing the two Ministers and Éanna Rowe of Waterways Ireland.

“We thought the Ministers were going to visit some of the river's pinchpoints in their boat, but we could see that they sailed right by a couple of significant pinchpoints without stopping. We don't think they put in enough effort during their visit and we are fearful that it will amount to no more than a PR exercise.”

For the past year, Liam continued, the Save Our Shannon Organisation (which has a website - www.saveourshannon
organisation.ie) have been contacting Minister Patrick O’Donovan on a regular basis regarding the on-going problems with flooding in the Shannon Callows region.

In this correspondence the group has particularly highlighted three recommendations:

1. Create a Single Authority to control water flow in the Shannon.
2. Reduce the level of water in the 3 lakes by one metre.
3. Remove the “pinchpoints” in the Shannon Callows area that are constricting the flow of water in times of flooding.

“On Thursday morning, 29 July,” said Liam, “we heard second-hand that Minister O’Donovan was coming to Banagher and was going by boat to see the new walkway at Meelick. We were not informed of this by the Minister or any of his staff despite the fact that in our email to him on 1 June 2021 we invited him to visit the Callows area. In his response to this email dated 27 July 2021, he acknowledged our invitation but didn’t respond to our request.

“On hearing of his proposed visit a decision was made by our group to meet him. We arranged for our members to be in Banagher Harbour at 3.00 pm when the Minister would return from his boat trip.

“Mr O’Donovan arrived in Banagher (around 1.30 pm) where he was met by representatives of Waterways Ireland, O.P.W. and by Pippa Hackett. This group was brought by a Waterways Ireland boat to Meelick. Naturally, we assumed, as victims of severe ongoing flooding, that the Ministers would be brought to observe some of the pinch points that are causing the flooding in the Shannon Callows and that Minister O’Donovan is planning to have removed by Waterways Ireland under the auspices of the OPW.

“Two of our members went by boat, ahead of the Ministers, to these pinch points under the assumption that we would meet him there and discuss their removal. The Ministers did not visit the pinch points on any part of their journey to or from Meelick. We can state this with absolute certainty.”

When the Ministers returned to Banagher (at 3.00 pm) they were met by members of S.O.S.O. and the IFA (Irish Farmers Association).

“In fairness to both Ministers,” said Liam, “they stopped and spoke with the assembled people. When Mr O’Donovan was asked by John Ryan, a farmer near Shannonbridge, 'Did you see the pinchpoints in Shannon Grove and Shaughnessy's Lough on your trip?' the Minister was unable to say 'Yes'. He said he had seen them on plans and maps. This was a very disappointing answer for members of the S.O.S.O. and I.F.A. to stomach.”

The Minister explained that plans were being drawn up, environmental assessments carried out and permissions were being sought for the removal of a number of pinch points and that the work would be carried out by Waterways Ireland.

“And yet,” remarked Liam, “Minister O’Donovan and Minister Hackett, did not look at these pinchpoints and/or were not brought by Waterways Ireland to see where they are located or how they are impacting on the flow of water. Looking at plans and maps is all very fine but there is no substitute for observing the obstructions close at hand.

“Pat Walshe, Rural Development Officer for Offaly I.F.A, asked the following question: 'This year (2021) the water levels in the Shannon Callows were managed well and farmers got to save their crops, boat enthusiasts were able to sail up and down the river and businesses depending on river traffic were able to open. Building on this success would it not be possible to put one person (or three) in charge of the sluices in Athlone, Shaughnessys and Meelick, with the power to open and close sluices appropriately, depending on the weather and the amount of rainfall due to fall?'

“The Minister responded by saying that weather factors could impinge on levels and he had no control over the operation of sluices/gates.”

The Minister was then asked by Michael Silke, Chairperson of S.O.S.O., “How far advanced are the plans for removing the “pinch points? €7 million has been advanced since December 2019 for this purpose”.

Minister O’Donovan responded by saying that Waterways Ireland and the O.P.W. are advancing plans and seeking permissions for this work. The Minister gave no time frame for this to happen.

Barry Cowan TD was in attendance in Banagher (though not on the boat trip). He asked the Minister to make these plans available for members of S.O.S.O. and the I.F.A. The Minister agreed to do this. Minister Pippa Hackett spoke in general about the river, flooding and the environment.

Towards the end of the discussion, S.O.S.O's PRO pointed out that while great work has been done under the CFRAMS programme to provide barriers to flooding in urban areas, the residents of the Shannon Callows, in rural areas, continue to be impacted by severe flooding in winter and summer. “They have had promises made to them,” said Liam, “by members of various political parties and governments, particularly after the severe flooding of November 2009, December 2015 / January 2016 and February 2020 and these promises have never been followed through. Minister O’Donovan was at pains to point out that he was making no promises, that he would make no promises to people and leave them disappointed. Yet in his recent press release, he committed to removing pinch points.”

S.O.S.O. says there are 18 pinch points between Meelick and Athlone. Of these, there are three major ones - at Derryholmes (near Shannonbridge), Shannongrove (near Banagher), and Shaughnessy's Lough (in the Lusmagh area). Former Minister of State Boxer Moran cleared the pinch point at Shaughnessy's Lough but, says S.O.S.O., it needs to be revisited, as while it is still navigable it has become heavily overgrown.

S.O.S.O. points out that Boxer Moran committed to removing several pinch points between Athlone and Meelick but only got around to a couple. Nonetheless, Boxer's work was groundbreaking because it was the first time, after many years of talking about it, that a Minister had actually started removing silt from the river.

“It seems to us,” said a S.O.S.O. statement, “the residents of the Shannon Callows and the continuous victims of severe flooding that, while the Minister may or may not be a man of “promises”, he does not seem to be a man of “action” either.

“We want to point out that in a letter written by Minister O’Donovan to us on 17th December 2020 he said, 'The Shannon Flood Risk State Agency Co-ordination Working Group agreed in 2019 to a €7 million investment to advance a planned programme of maintenance works and the removal of constrictions or “pinch points” at the Callows Region between Athlone and Meelick Weir to improve conveyancing of the River Shannon.'

"However, since the 2019 promise, not one Euro has been spent in removing pinch points. The €7 million was allocated in December 2019 and announced by the then Minister for the O.P.W., Kevin “Boxer” Moran. Indeed, Minister O’Donovan informed the S.O.S.O. last year that work would commence in 2021. No plan has been presented to the residents of the Shannon Callows for the removal of pinch points and as far as we are aware no planning permissions have been sought.

“Furthermore, in a letter dated 27th July 2021 to the Save Our Shannon Organisation from Minister O’Donovan, it states: 'The Government has noted this decision by the Group and agreed that the O.P.W. will provide €7 million for all of these works, of which €4 million relates to the removal of the “pinch points in the Callows region'.

"This was indeed devastating news to us. €3 million of the money allocated by Kevin “Boxer” Moran is going elsewhere when the full €7 million was earmarked for the Shannon Callows region. Also, in last week’s press release from Minister O'Donovan it stated, 'Collectively all of these schemes when completed will protect 95% of those properties being identified as being at significant risk from flooding. The OPW will also provide €7 million to implement a programme of strategic maintenance upstream of Ardnacrusha to assist with mitigating flooding and the removal of a number of pinch points through the Shannon Callows that can help to delay flooding in the area. Some €4 million of this funding relates directly to the removal of the several pinch points in the Callows region. Studies carried out as part of the Shannon Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAMS) Study and the Shannon Flood Risk State Agency Co-Ordination working Group highlighted potential benefits and informed the decision to remove a number of pinch points in the Callows region. Work is advancing and a project brief is currently being prepared for the appointment of a project consultant to identify and manage all of the activities that are necessary to progress through the planning process to enable the commencement of the works. These works can only commence following completion of the appropriate environment assessments and following receipt of planning permission'.”

The S.O.S.O. statement adds that many years ago it supplied the O.P.W. with a detailed list of the pinch points located between Athlone and Meelick and highlighted three pinch points in particular that need to be removed on many occasions. These pinch points were also noted in the CFRAMS report.

“Now,” says S.O.S.O. “we read in last week's press release from the Minister that, 'a project brief is currently being prepared for the appointment of a project consultant to identify and manage all the activities that are necessary to progress through the planning process to enable the commencement of the works'. Here we have the proof that no planning permissions have been sought yet, no plan is in place and it seems the €3 million is being used to facilitate this project brief. It also seems that the area where the €7 million is to be spent has been enlarged to cover an area 'upstream of Ardnacrusha'. The goalposts are being moved, despite what was agreed by Government in December 2019 and as stated in the Minister’s letter of 17th December 2020.

“Lastly, we come to the definition of a pinch point. Minister Hackett made reference to two 'interpretations of a pinch point' last week. She referred to 'pinch points along the river bed, which if removed from the navigation channel, will in turn allow for the water level, controlled for navigation, to be lowered.' We would like to inform both Ministers that this is not a pinch point. On the other hand, when Minister Hackett refers to 'the build-up of silt and vegetation visible above the water level at various locations' she is indeed talking about a pinch point.

"The River Shannon is choked with weeds, vegetation, reeds, trees and bushes but these are not located in the navigation channel. In times of flooding the river fills up rapidly because the bottom of the river is filled with silt from Bord Na Mona bogs and has nowhere to go only spread over the surrounding land.”

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