I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
— acknowledges the legislative landscape and regulatory environment that the Shannon Flood Risk State Agency Working Group operates is very complex;
— notes that it is in the public interest to manage the flood risk in the Shannon catchment; and
— resolves that the River Shannon Management Agency Bill 2020 be deemed to be read a second time this day nine months, to allow for an examination on the legislative landscape including a review of the current regulatory environment."
At the outset, I acknowledge the content of the River Shannon Management Agency Bill 2020. Over the coming months I will examine the complexities and legal issues arising from it in the context of the creation of a single agency. I am well aware of the devastation that can be caused by flooding for individual homeowners, businesses, landowners and communities. Since being appointed Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW and flood relief, I have visited a number of areas, including Kilmallock, Kenmare, Clifden, Bantry, Bandon, Dunmanway and Cork city, which have been affected by recent storms and flooding, witnessed at first hand the damage caused and met and spoken with the people and business owners directly affected.
The River Shannon is a valuable natural resource that is important to Ireland’s economy, society, culture and environment. It serves an important purpose for electricity generation, navigation for tourism, fishing and creates employment to support these activities. Given its importance, the Government has completed an assessment of the flood risk along the Shannon, published the flood maps and is implementing the plan to manage the flood risk along the Shannon river. One of the six catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, study areas included a dedicated study of the flood risk of the Shannon river basin district. This Shannon study has a catchment area of 17,800 sq. km and a population of some 670,000 people living in 17 local authority areas. It assessed, mapped and provided the flood risk management plans for the Shannon including for 67 communities. To date, 11 of these towns have a flood relief scheme providing protection against a one in 100-year flood event and in May 2018 the Government announced 34 new flood relief schemes for Shannon river communities. These form part of the plans announced by the Government’s €1 billion investment in flood relief measures over the lifetime of the National Development Plan 2018-2027. Work on 25 schemes is currently under way.
Outside of the major flood relief schemes, local flooding issues are being addressed by local authorities with the support of the OPW under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme. This scheme provides funding for minor flood mitigation works or studies, costing less than €750,000 each, to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems. To date, the OPW has approved funding of €34 million to over 600 projects for the Shannon river basin district. Two thirds of these projects are outside of the areas covered by the CFRAM.
The OPW is also responsible for the 11,500 km of river channels, including approximately 800 km of embankments, which form part of the arterial drainage schemes completed since 1945. These are kept under proper repair and in an effective condition through the OPW's annual maintenance programme. In this year alone, maintenance work has been undertaken on approximately 595 km of channels and embankments on the Boyle, Inny, Brosna, Killimor-Cappagh, Carrigahorig, Nenagh-Clareen, Mulkear, Groody, Maigue, Deel and Feale catchment schemes and the Shannon embankments north and south.
The Government established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group in 2016 to enhance the ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon and to support the work planned by the flood risk management plans. Deputies will recall that the group was established at that time following severe flooding arising from a series of storms and a period of sustained rainfall between December 2015 and January 2016. On its establishment, a priority for the group was to develop a work programme within its first two months. This programme highlighted the existing and extensive range of activities and co-ordination by all State agencies in 2016 to jointly and proactively address flood risk along the Shannon. These works are categorised across maintenance, flood relief works, water management, regulation and policy areas. Every year since then, the group has produced an annual work programme that highlights the ongoing diverse and broad scale of activity and the proactive co-ordination between the State agencies to manage the flood risk along the River Shannon.
Having met the group in the last fortnight, it is my intention to refocus it to look at short, medium and long-term measures that need to be taken. The group has representation from the CEOs of all State agencies with a role on the Shannon, including the ESB and Waterways Ireland. It is chaired by the OPW chairman and has met on 13 occasions. It has established a work programme subgroup, which has identified some additional measures that can help further mitigate and manage the flood risk along the Shannon. This subgroup has addressed all of the necessary environmental, technical and other considerations that arise in bringing forward both short-term and long-term proposals which I am anxious to see progressed and have identified as the greatest issues to be advanced.
The public have also been consulted during this process to develop the flood risk management plans for the Shannon. This involved 144 public consultation days where members of the public had opportunities to engage with the process and discuss at first hand the accuracy of the maps. Some 156 submissions were received by the OPW from stakeholders comprising members of the public, elected representatives, local authorities and various organisations. Observations were considered and the plans were amended accordingly. In addition, the Shannon working group has held public consultation days on its work programme and has met with representative groups, including the IFA. It is my intention to meet the farming organisations shortly and I have starting meeting all members of the Shannon flood co-ordination group on a bilateral basis.
The Shannon working group has completed targeted maintenance activities along the river at Meelick Weir, the new cut at Muckinish, Shannon Grove at Kilnaborris and the new cut at Illaunacalliagh. Works at these locations involved tree cutting and the removal of silt and emergent vegetation which helped to improve the conveyancing of the river at these locations. These works required consents which had to be obtained from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which none of the previous speakers addressed.
Lowering the water levels on Lough Allen has been trialled for the past three years. While this issue is weather related, reaching the lower targeted levels agreed with the ESB will provide additional storage capacity during flood events to help to alleviate any significant flooding that may occur. The group has agreed to continue with this trial on a temporary basis pending the completion of a flood relief scheme for Carrick-on-Shannon.
In December 2019, the Government noted the studies by the Shannon working group that support a programme of strategic maintenance to mitigate flooding along the Shannon and the removal of the pinch points in the Shannon Callows that will address the summer flooding in the area and benefit navigation. The Government has agreed that the OPW will provide €7 million for these works, which will progress following environmental assessment and planning permission. Waterways Ireland is the implementing body for these works and it has advised the OPW that it is advancing the various interventions, such as tree cutting and silt removal, to commence strategic maintenance measures at 12 locations commencing in 2021.
The group has recently completed a study of the cause, rate and degree of restrictions over time downstream of Parteen Weir in the lower Shannon that can now inform the options to help to manage the flood risk in this part of the Shannon. All of these measures and activities have been or will be carried out within the existing powers and responsibilities of State agencies. Where necessary, agreements and protocols have been established and agreed for delivering new initiatives.
The Shannon State agency co-ordination working group is working well but it is my intention to sharpen its focus by working collectively with its members. It has identified and delivered activities that are already providing flood relief in the area and it is focused on providing additional flood relief measures to protect properties in the area. These activities are being delivered within the current statutory roles and functions co-ordinated by the State agencies. I recognise that progress is slow. The current regulatory framework is such that progress in advancing its programme of activities is significantly impacted by a broad range of regulatory requirements which must be addressed and complied with. Like all individuals, agencies and companies, we have to comply with the requirements of environmental and planning legislation.
The Office of Public Works and I are actively engaged with the key Departments to ensure that required flood measures are delivered to communities in the shortest possible timeframe. To that end, it is my intention to bring to Government a memorandum detailing the progress of the roll-out of flood relief schemes and the policy areas where we believe further interdepartmental work is needed. There will be a particular emphasis on the areas of planning and environmental compliance.
The Shannon working group is carrying out functions envisaged in the Bill, albeit on a non-statutory basis. As I understand this may not be enough for Deputies and people outside the House, I request the co-operation of the House to take this Bill, together with my own reflections, and the memorandum that I intend to take to Government, and to come back to the Dail at a later date. With the co-operation of the Opposition, I would like to chart a way forward that keeps open all avenues including either amending or new legislation. I give that commitment as Minister of State. I ask the Opposition to work with me, co-operate with me and engage with me on the advancement of this aim.
I propose not to oppose the Bill and that the Bill be read in approximately nine months, allowing the time to introduce legislation, if appropriate, on the matter. I want to work with Deputies on protecting properties from flooding. I have personal family experience of what it does to properties and I am open to reforms that Members wish to bring forward, particularly in the area of planning and environmental compliance that might make delivery to people and communities faster. However, we must be honest. People who are affected by flooding need to be told the truth and the establishment of an agency tonight would not prevent a single litre of water from entering their property. By working together I hope that we can make a positive change for communities across the country that continue to be ravaged by floods. If Members have suggestions on amending existing legislation that they believe will help, I certainly will work with them.
I wish to conclude by assuring Members that I and the Government are working extremely hard to ensure that the greatest possible progress is being made to deliver on a very ambitious programme of investment in flood defence along the Shannon and nationally. The commitment of €1 billion in the national development plan is a clear sign of how high a priority this is for the Government. However, being able to spend this money will depend on the processes we and those contracting authorities, such as the city and county councils, have to work with. Our climate is changing, which we have witnessed with the increased storm frequency and weather events, and we must adapt accordingly.