Shannon Flooding Interim Report: Statements (Resumed).

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.

I call Senator Costello.

I have been waiting for 30 minutes to speak. The Senator just walked in to speak.

I must cross the floor. Senator Costello has 20 minutes.

It is opportunism.

The Leader said it is opportunism, but I spend most days waiting for my turn. I am tenth in line for an opportunity to speak.

It is not the Senator's turn now.

There is nobody here.

It is the Independents' turn now.

If an Independent was present, I would gladly give way.

Order, please. I called Senator Costello and he has 20 minutes.

I am more than willing to share my time with the Leader of the House if he wishes.

No, the Senator can speak now if he wishes.

I will give him 15 minutes if he wishes.

It will return to the Leader of the House when Senator Costello has completed his contribution.

This matter has been raised on the Order of Business every few weeks over the past number of years. Members have bemoaned the fact that flooding continues unabated on lands in the west, the midlands and parts of Munster. The problem affects the four provinces of Connacht, Ulster, Leinster and Munster, but it is not new. As the report states, it existed in the 1840s and throughout the 19th century. There were reports in 1863, 1887 and 1938 before the famous Rydell report in 1956. However, despite all these reports, no action has been taken to reduce the incidence of flooding on the River Shannon. Those of us with long memories remember what it was like between the 1930s and the 1960s. During every general election campaign, there was talk in the west about draining the River Shannon.

They were at it for 70 years.

It has been going on since the foundation of the State. My father, who, the Leader will be glad to hear, was a good Fianna Fáil man—

There is a stray sheep in every family.

Senator Costello without interruption.

My mother took the opposite side so I presume I took the right course in between.

The Senator is doing well anyway.

It was one of the great unfulfilled promises during her time. Now that matters have progressed in different directions and the economy is more stable, there is probably less of a tendency to use it as a means to rally the troops. However, the need is even greater now. Every year we hear about flooding and there are calls for compensation for the loss of thousands of acres of agricultural land and animals that were stranded.

On the other side of the coin, effluent, slurry and other agricultural waste have found their way into the River Shannon. In addition, problems have been created by effluent from peat production for ESB stations and through energy pro duction by the midlands station. These difficulties have given rise to a greater need to drain the River Shannon and also to ensure that its water is clean. The river has become a major tourism attraction. It is the greatest inland waterway on the island and, therefore, it is important to ensure that it is attractive from its source to its mouth.

The Minister said that 20% of the island has been affected in terms of tributaries in the River Shannon basin. This huge area comprises 6,400 square miles. The threat of global warming has been added to the issues of continuing flooding, the increase in effluent and the need to be extra vigilant of resources in terms of tourism in addition to greater environmental awareness as a result of European Union directives. We can expect flooding to take on greater intensity in terms of the quantity of water that will be released into areas surrounding the River Shannon and the number of occasions on which flooding will occur.

This debate is timely because it gives Members an opportunity to consider the measures that could be taken that are outlined in the joint committee's interim report. The committee relied heavily on the Rydell report. Given its substantial nature, it is difficult to improve on the recommendations contained in that 1956 report. It considered all the tributaries and lakes involved, the river as a whole and the surrounding lands. It made a series of recommendations and I was impressed by their extensive nature.

I do not know if there is any advantage in carrying out another report in 2000 or 2001 although it is almost 50 years since the Rydell report was published. Action rather than a further report is needed now. Reports were prepared in this and the last century and it is now time for action. There have been calls for a statutory authority for the River Shannon. There is the National Roads Authority and there is a need for an authority to deal with our telecommunications infrastructure. The Leader is aware of how often that matter has been raised in terms of having an infrastructure Bill passed by the House. Otherwise things will be done randomly and a proper network and streamlined process will not be established.

It seems something along the lines of a Shannon river authority needs to be put in place. We need to co-ordinate the activities of the local authorities and national Government. Perhaps a single, dedicated body is the way to go about it. Others may have a different view on the matter, but that is probably the most effective way to go about it. There has to be a commitment to put considerable financial resources into dealing with it. Unless it is done this time, we will find it very difficult to deal with flooding when it becomes more regular and intensive in the years to come.

I wanted to add my voice as somebody who has heard about flooding from the River Shannon all my life and has not yet seen any action to deal with it. Now that we have the interim report, let us come up with a firm recommendation and put together one effective means to do so. Rather than leave it lie while people become frustrated and make calls, claims, counterclaims and allegations of inactivity, let the Government make a firm commitment.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has not been slow to make commitments in relation to funding for the future. We have just discussed the pensions Bill which provides that money will be put in trust for 25 years and will come on stream between 2025 and 2055 to ensure there is a proper nest egg. That is admirable planning for the future. We need to plan for the future in relation to the River Shannon. It is a part of our heritage which we should treasure enormously. It behoves us to spend some money now to ensure the River Shannon remains a clean river which does not interfere with the livelihood of people who live on its banks.

I am pleased to speak today on a matter which has been brought to my attention many times on the Order of Business. I recall the efforts Fianna Fáil made in Opposition. I refer to the efforts made in the last Seanad by the then Members, Deputy Daly and Deputy O'Kennedy. I am pleased to see the report before us for our consideration and deliberation.

I know the importance of the Shannon at first hand. As we all know, the River Shannon directly touches ten counties – counties Cavan, Leitrim, Roscommon, Westmeath, Offaly, Tipperary north and south, Galway, Limerick, Clare and Longford – and 12 local authorities. It causes a lot of problems at certain times of the year while at other times it is a great national resource. It has to be treated seriously, we have to address the problems and funding has to be made available. The country is awash with money in the Celtic tiger economy.

Flooded with money.

There has never been a more appropriate time to allocate funds under the new body proposed by the Doherty commission and to put a proper plan in place so funds can be spent wisely and the work can be completed. Governments in the past, including Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have not addressed the problem because of a lack of available funds. I am not criticising or denigrating them – they did the best they could in very bad times. Emigration was rampant. I remember a time not too long ago, since I became a Member of this House, when VAT on certain products was 35%.

Look at the great opportunity we have today because of sound planning. As I said on the Order of Business today, the national agreement, the national understanding and the new agreement reached yesterday will allow us, as Members of the Seanad, Members of Dáil Éireann and the Government to address the long-standing problem of the River Shannon.

I listened attentively to Members of the House who are members of local authorities. The Cathaoirleach is from Roscommon and Senator Moylan is from Offaly. The only Senator on the sub-committee, young Senator John Cregan, made an excellent contribution on behalf of the Government side. They all gave us their opinions, based on their vast experience, on what should happen with this great national resource.

We cannot underestimate the effects of flooding on the thousands of farming people along the Shannon and on the people living adjacent to the Shannon who are not involved in farming but whose houses were built where they should not have been built. I have been reliably told by local people living in the Roscommon, Offaly, Westmeath and Longford area of the Shannon that if £50 million was to be spent – £10 million per year – over the next five years, it would free up thousands of acres of land for hundreds of farmers. It would allow them to farm their land for at least ten months of the year.

I handed the presentation from those people, which had been done by engineers of long standing with local authorities, to the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, the last time we debated this topic. I would like the officials to make that presentation available to the committee and to consider the practical experience of ordinary engineering staff in those counties who consider they would be able to alleviate the flooding problem.

From time to time we see the damage flooding can do. We have seen what it has done in the UK in recent months and in the town of Fermoy on two occasions in the past ten days. The Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace, is from Cork city. He is a man of the people. Anyone who has been an elected Member of the Dáil or Seanad for as long as the Minister of State is a person who has served the electorate well, is honourable and is in tune with what is happening. No matter how good or dedicated a politician one is, one cannot do anything about an act of God such as the change in the climate and the increased flooding with which people must contend, whether they live along the Shannon or in the beautiful town of Fermoy.

We have to address the problem. It is not for the want of money, which is available. Over the years our predecessors in the Dáil and Seanad would have liked to do something but they could do precious little because no funds were available. I remember in Westmeath in 1985 we were sent home after an estimates meeting having been told that two out of three lights in the county would have to be turned out because the country was near bankruptcy. Look at the wonderful improvement in the economy since. How wonderful it is to be a Member of Seanad Éireann today and to look forward to such a buoyant economy and budget which will be announced tomorrow in the other House.

It is unfortunate that there is no Member on the Opposition benches.

Senator Cassidy should not refer to the absence of Members from the House.

I am disappointed because of the number of people who asked for this debate. I am pleased that under this Government the Doherty Commission has forwarded an interim report to the House and that we on the Government side are treating it extremely seriously. I accept the Chair's ruling but he will understand my disappointment.

We are impressed by the Doherty report and grateful to the commission for bringing it before us. The members of the commission have shown their interest and concern that something be done. The implementation of the recommendations in this report will be of far greater significance to the people concerned in the 12 counties in question than any legislation passed by the House over the past number of years. The Government has taken the correct approach by asking the sub-committee to bring this report before this House for its consideration. I look forward to receiving the final report. I hope tomorrow's budget will contribute to having this problem addressed.

I note that County Westmeath needs £200,000 to raise road levels. I hope that will be forthcoming from the Department of the Environment and Local Government so that people in the county can access their houses and holdings.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank the Chair and the Leader of the House for affording me an opportunity to contribute on this very important matter. In my 11 years in the House I have spoken regularly on behalf of affected householders and landowners who live on the banks of the River Shannon and its tributaries, particularly the River Suck.

It is necessary to be from the Shannon basin area to fully appreciate the hardship and difficulties experienced by the people who live there. It is not until a serious flood occurs that television cameras and national politicians avail of the opportunity to go and see the problems at first hand. However, these are not problems that are experienced just once; they are experienced day in and day out, sometimes up to four and five times a year for periods of up to five weeks.

The people living in that area have been the forgotten people of this island over the many years since the foundation of the State. I am very pleased, therefore, that in recent times there has been greater focus on understanding the problems and a new determination by the Houses of the Oireachtas to deal with the plight of people who, through no fault of their own, live in an area that is subject to flooding on an annual basis, sometimes four times a year.

I welcome the interim report from the joint committee. The committee has done excellent work. It has re-established and reiterated much of the local knowledge that has existed for many years. In particular, it identifies what I have said on behalf of the people of that area for many years, that is, that the main channel of the River Shannon has been used as an outfall and a dumping ground for all areas of activity in the 250,000 acres of the Shannon basin, whether industry, farming, tourism or any other ancillary development of the local authority. All have used the main channel of the River Shannon as an outfall for their overflows and residues. Over the period of the existence of this State not a shovelful of residue has been removed from the main channel. How could it operate in any reasonable way when no maintenance has ever taken place? As I have said before, eventually the chickens came home to roost. The problem is now so serious that it is affecting areas and towns outside the Shannon basin. Flooding on the River Shannon is now a national issue, and I am very pleased about that. Now the attention and the necessary funding will be provided. I ask the Minister of State to bring back the message to the Government, to the relevant Ministers, that funding is needed.

The first thing that is needed is a maintenance programme of drainage to be carried out on the main channel of the Shannon to remove the large deposits of silt and residue that have accumulated over the past 50 years so that that channel, which is one of the finest rivers in Europe, can flow and operate in the way God intended, taking into consideration the navigation restrictions necessary in the interests of tourism and of the production of electricity at Ardnacrusha. There is no longer an excuse for not carrying out normal maintenance on the main channel of the river. There are two pieces of legislation that cover that, the arterial drainage legislation of the 1940s and a recent amendment to that legislation in 1994 or 1995, that afford the opportunity of carrying out maintenance on the River Shannon by interested and involved parties. These would include the Office of Public Works, the local authorities adjacent to the area, the commercial bodies, such as the ESB and Bord na Móna, and any other interested groups that have an involvement there. If that were set down as the foundation and the basis for attention to the Shannon, we would be getting somewhere. There are many other aspects of the maintenance of the River Shannon, for example, the co-ordination of the activities of the numerous bodies that exist. I am glad that has also been identified in this major report.

I pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, for his response in recent months to me and the people of County Roscommon, in allocating £400,000 to raise roads in areas adjacent to the Shannon, the Clonoun area, areas in mid-Roscommon and right up into Castlerea. For a sum of £450,000, £400,000 from the Department and over £50,000 from the council, we already see the benefits of raising the roads. One wonders why this work was not carried out before.

I hope this is a further indication that while there will be flooding on the River Shannon, there are measures we can take that will allow the Shannon to flow in the way God intended by carrying out annual maintenance, but we can also take remedial action such as raising roads to allow people to come and go to their farms and homes by road so houses and stock are not marooned as has happened up to now. These are very practical measures that can be implemented at this time.

I ask the committee to continue its work and to come forward with a final report. If necessary it should apportion responsibility, not blame, to individual groups, organisations and Departments, whether State or semi-State, for this channel. The channel should not be taken for granted nor should it be used just as an outfall for which nobody takes responsibility. It is not there to be taken for granted; it is not there to be used just as an outfall with no one taking responsibility for it.

The tourism industry has a part to play, in co-operation with the local authority, regarding the main Shannon waterway. There has been a major increase in boating activities on the River Shannon. Very few of those hundreds of boats have a holding tank or use the pump out stations along the Shannon. This is one of the most important issues. I ask the Departments or the local authorities responsible for pump out stations immediately to enact legislation or introduce by-laws, if they do not already exist, insisting that every boat with a capacity for more than six people should have a holding tank and that these boats be taken to a pump out station provided by local authorities at appropriate locations along the Shannon.

We need to do this in the interest of public safety and for people who want to use the Shannon for leisure pursuits such as swimming. We also need to do this to protect the quality of water and fish life in the Shannon. This responsibility should no longer be ignored by local authorities or the Government.

I hope that the final report will call for these measures and that the necessary legislation will be enacted by these Houses and that we can work towards improving the water quality of the River Shannon. Above all I hope that the main issue in the report will be dealt with, that is, that the responsibility for flooding and the management of the Shannon will be clearly identified and that people will have a responsibility as a result of the final report.

I hope this Government, or whatever Government is in office, will provide the necessary finance to carry out a maintenance programme on the River Shannon. I also hope that affected farmers and householders will no longer be marooned due to flooding and that the money needed by the local authorities will be provided to raise the roads to these houses and farms.

Over the years much has been spoken and written about the flooding of the River Shannon. Some people viewed this problem as a joke and thought that it was a suitable subject for bar room gossip and corridor comment. That is no longer the case. This is now a serious issue. The Government has decided to tackle this problem and I compliment them on that.

I ask the committee, particularly our representative on it, my colleague, Senator John Cregan, to see to it that the final report is brought to fruition and that responsibility is placed on the different Departments and agencies. I also hope that the finances necessary to implement their final recommendations will be provided by Government.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.