I welcome the Minister of State and I thank him for the work he has done in this area. The interim report on flooding on the Shannon river is an important document and I wish to express my thanks to those involved in its production. I refer particularly to Deputy Doherty, chairman of the sub-committee, and Senator John Cregan who have done a great deal of work on this report. I live near the Shannon and I am aware of the amount of work done by Deputy Doherty and Senator Cregan during the summer. When others might have been off enjoying themselves, they met representatives from many groups which have been affected by flooding on the Shannon for many years.
Senator Connor outlined the history of this matter and stated the draining of the Shannon was an issue in every election campaign. I visited a former member of Offaly County Council, a Mr. Kerin, when he was seriously ill in hospital, who stood for election on behalf of the Leas-Cathaoirleach's party on a number of occasions and who fought for many years to have the Shannon drained. Two weeks previously a number of houses in our area had been flooded and I had raised the matter at a meeting of the local authority. Mr. Kerin said that he had raised the same issue in the late 1940s and he stated that the only way the Shannon would be drained was if the water turned to whiskey. That was an apt and sincere statement on the part of a man who had fought for many years to have the Shannon drained but who had failed in his endeavours.
Many sections of the report highlight the numbers of farmers who have been severely affected by flooding on the Shannon. Those people are hoping that a structure will be put in place under which responsibility will be given to a group or organisation to take action about this matter. The Shannon will never be drained, but some of the problems that exist can be alleviated. I live near the Shannon and I am aware of the problems people face. I have met farmers who lost substantial amounts of fodder as a result of flash floods in the summer, farmers whose land is flooded for long periods and farmers who have been forced to sell livestock as a result of flooding at a time when it was not advantageous to do so because they lacked the necessary feed or had no land on which to place their stock. Action must be taken to address these problems. Many of the farmers to whom I refer live in areas where the problem of flooding is accepted. However, they want to continue to have access to their holdings and dwellings.
The report highlights the costs incurred by local authorities in raising and resurfacing roads. The state of the roads in my area is a major problem, but at national level it is not viewed in that way. In my opinion the costs outlined in the report in respect of raising these roads are quite small. The roads leading to these farmers' villages or houses may only be one or two miles long and only 100 metres or 200 metres of the roadway may need to be raised and resurfaced in order to allow the farmers access to their properties. It is sad to see farmers having to go across country on tractors to take children to school, do shopping or go to Mass or church services on Sunday because roads are flooded. This problem has been highlighted by the report.
Local authorities have costed the solution to the problem at £8 million. It can be addressed within a short number of years if the necessary finance is made available. I hope the Depart ments of Finance and the Environment and Local Government will provide the finance so that local authorities can ensure farmers at least have access to their property.
Many people who live along the Shannon will say it used to take two or three days rain before the level of the river would begin to rise. However, increased drainage into the river upstream and the removal of hedgerows and banks to enlarge fields mean that flooding affects streams and rivers more quickly, the problem of flooding is felt sooner and we do not have time to deal with it. We often blame those who control the water levels on the Shannon but when flooding occurs suddenly there is very little they can do about it. Local authorities must ensure that drainage and the enlargement of fields by the removal of hedgerows and banks is controlled. Planning permission should be required for such works. Those who live on the banks of the Shannon know this is a major problem.
In 1955, the Rydell report estimated the cost of flood relief at £15 million. Nothing has been done in the meantime but, because of drainage upstream and silting in the river, the channel has been reduced substantially. Some blame Bord na Móna for the increased siltation of the river. Undoubtedly it is partially responsible but it is not wholly to blame. The company has attempted, through the use of silt ponds, to reduce silting. In the midlands we recognise the contribution of the board to midland counties and we are prepared to accept a small amount of silting in the Shannon as the price for that contribution. Nevertheless, something must be done about the problem, which is particularly severe between Athlone and Meelick. Flooding is particularly severe in Roscommon, Offaly, Westmeath and east Galway.
The problem could be alleviated by the reduction of the water levels in the lakes. Water levels in the Shannon lakes are rarely reduced until it is too late and the Meelick weirs are unable to cope with the level of flooding. The problem has been examined on many occasions. The falls from Banagher to Meelick and from Athlone to Banagher have been looked at. This stretch of river cannot take the level of water which comes downstream and it is forced out on to the callows. People who live in the area believe that officials in some Departments are more interested in flooding the callows than providing a living for the farmers on the river bank. Certain vested interests are prepared to accept the flooding of the Shannon callows so long as the corncrake and wild life habitats are protected. Because the Shannon basin is one of the most important wildlife habitats in Europe, land is being flooded unnecessarily and farmers are suffering.
Boating interests require the river level to be maintained at too high a level. The level at which the River Shannon is kept between October and March is unnecessarily high. The water level could be much lower at that time of year when there is very little pleasure boat activity on the river. If this were done, the river and lakes would be better able to cope with winter floods.
Waterways Ireland is responsible for bridges over the river. Because of persistent flooding it may be necessary to spend large amounts of money on many Shannon bridges in the not too distant future. The bases and abutments of many old arched stone bridges are showing signs of wear and their repair may entail substantial costs.
I hope this report will be acted upon and will not gather dust in the Department alongside many previous reports. One authority which would have complete control of what happens on the River Shannon is what is required. There are many vested interests in terms of fishing, boating, etc.
There was a huge furore recently about a few days flooding in the east. Much noise was made about it and compensation was sought. That is fine, but my concern is for the people who suffer from the effects of flooding year after year. They continually suffer because of flooding and we must ensure that some form of compensation is given to them. One of the ways this could be done is to consider the areas most affected. The report mentions the affected areas. Local authorities know where they are because they are well mapped. We must ensure the people affected by flooding are compensated.
I compliment those who drew up the report. I have spoken to many organisations who met them and found them most courteous. The people affected by flooding for many years are looking forward not only to the publication of the report but to some action being taken on it in the near future. As they said, if they could access their houses, it would be a step in the right direction.