I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I want to start by reassuring communities living along the River Shannon that the Government is doing everything it can to prevent flooding along the Shannon this winter.
The core strategy for addressing the significant flood risks along the River Shannon is the Office of Public Works, OPW, catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme. Of the 300 areas for further assessment, AFAs, nationwide, there are 66 along the Shannon river basin district that have been assessed within the Shannon CFRAM study.
Draft flood risk management plans have been made available for public consultation, and the consultation period for the Shannon CFRAM study, which included a series of local public consultation events, closed on 23 September. The flood risk management plans will now be finalised, taking on board the comments received, and will include a prioritised list of feasible measures, both structural and non-structural, to address flood risk in an environmentally sustainable and cost-effective manner.
Building on past investment, the Government has demonstrated its support of flood relief by extending its commitment to provide €430 million to flood risk management between 2016 and 2021. The annual allocation for flood defence works will more than double, from €45 million to €100 million per annum. The OPW estimates that up to €1.2 billion in benefit has been derived from that investment to date in terms of 12,000 properties protected and flood damages and losses avoided. That is a major achievement, and it is the Government’s intention to continue to build on this major achievement and to prioritise investment in flood defence schemes.
Athlone experienced severe flooding last winter, and the situation could have been much worse but for the enormous efforts made by the local authority emergency response team assisted by volunteers from the local community. I am determined that residents and business owners in Athlone will not have to go through that experience again. It has been decided, therefore, to advance flood relief works for the town. The OPW and Westmeath County Council are working together on the development of a flood relief scheme for the town, and the OPW has agreed to fund the development and implementation of a viable scheme for Athlone based on the options identified in CFRAM. The works are estimated to cost approximately €6 million and are planned to commence in 2017. When completed, they will give protection to approximately 250 homes. Other major schemes along the Shannon are already under design and construction, including at Foynes and King's Island in Limerick and at Ennis Lower and Ennis South.
The OPW can provide funding to local authorities under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme to undertake minor works to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems within their administrative areas. So far this year, 38 additional projects at a cost of €1.7 million along the Shannon have been approved by my office. These will provide important localised flood protection and mitigation.
Last winter, the Government took decisive action to support the existing plans in place to address flooding on the Shannon and established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group to enhance ongoing co-operation across all the State agencies involved with the River Shannon, including ESB, Waterways Ireland, Bord na Móna, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the OPW and the relevant local authorities. Its extensive work programme, published on the OPW website, highlights the current proactive and co-ordinated approach by all State agencies to flood risk management in the Shannon catchment. The working group is building on the existing work and commitment of all the State agencies involved in flood risk. The group is also focused on ensuring the best possible level of co-ordination between all statutory bodies involved in flood management on the Shannon, and is solutions focused and designed to deliver the highest level of efficiencies to add value to the CFRAM programme.
The group held three open days on its work programme to discuss the role and work of the group with the public, and met the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, to discuss and explore the approach being adopted to address its issues of concern. No later than this morning, the group met and discussed the benefits of possible measures to managing flood risk for the winter of 2016-2017.
I am pleased to announce that a decision has been taken by the group to trial the lowering of the lake levels in Lough Allen to help mitigate potential flood risk for this winter. From the analysis completed, this may have a positive impact on the extent of certain flood events that might occur during the winter. This is to be achieved through protocols being agreed between the OPW, the ESB and Waterways Ireland, with input from the relevant local authorities. The modelling and analysis completed shows that this action can only be done in specified conditions to avoid causing or exacerbating flooding downstream, and this trial will need to be carefully monitored. While the impact of this initiative might be small, it demonstrates the continued commitment of the agencies to work in a co-ordinated way to explore all measures that may benefit the communities along the River Shannon.