Major plan announced by Government-appointed group to dredge Shannon

Action needs to be taken to avoid clogging river despite possible EU opposition, says Minister

Lough Derg in the Shannon River basin. Nothing had been done in terms of dredging or maintenance for years, Minister of State Seán Canney for the Office of Public Works said. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The Shannon will have to be dredged to curb future flooding, State agencies have agreed - despite repeated declarations that dredging was barred by European Union directives.

The Shannon Flood Risk Group, which is led by the Office for Public Work, has accepted that “strategic maintenance works” must be carried out on Ireland’s longest river.

State agencies now acknowledge that “we must make room for the river”, declared Minister of State for the Office of Public Works (OPW) Seán Canney: “It was agreed by everybody that we need to start a plan.

“We will be taking out some of the stuff, the silt and vegetation that has taken over,” said the Minister of State, who repeatedly called for dredging to take place before he entered office.

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Meanwhile, a separate plan to take out “pinch points” or outcrops of rocks in the river could reduce the level of the Shannon by half a metre in both summer and winter.

The flood risk group consists of the 10 State agencies that share responsibility for the Shannon, who were brought together by the Government following last winter’s disastrous.

Describing the decision as a major step forward, Mr Canney said the biggest challenge facing them is that the Shannon is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under EU habitats directives.

The group will address all the necessary legal, environmental, technical and other considerations that must now be taken into account, the OPW said in a statement.

Speaking following the announcement Mr Canney said: “Since I came into office people have been telling me we can’t touch the Shannon. But now people accept we have to touch it to deal with the flooding.”

Nothing had been done in terms of dredging or maintenance for years, he said. “If we don’t do it now, within the next 20 years we’ll end up clogging the whole Shannon.”

He said “the OPW spent €15 million in 2016 in channel clearing including €5 million on the catchment area of the Shannon but not actually in the Shannon”.

The habitats directive had inhibited action through dredging, but “if we have to bring our case to Europe we will do so”. He stressed however that he did not believe that would delay it by years.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is involved in the group and would assist the group to put a plan in place and establish ways to carry out to the maintenance works in the best way possible.

Earlier this week Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the European Commission had issued a formal statement, also this week, that EU directives did not prevent dredging and did not ban dredging.

Mr Canney said all the stakeholders would be consulted and involved in the initiation,development and implementation of the plan. The Minister said the programme would take a number of years, using the strategic plan for the entire river, with the aim of getting the Shannon to a stage where there is general annual maintenance.

The specific areas for dredging were not identified in the decision made by the flood group at a meeting on December 2nd.

The OPW has responsibility for the maintenance of over 11,500 km of river channel and over 700km of embankments, protecting some 650,000 acres of agricultural land, according to the Minister.

The OPW was prepared to put funding into the programme “but we won’t be re-inventing the wheel” and would be using the equipment of bodies such as Waterways Ireland, one of the risk group’s members.

Members of the flood risk group are chief executive officers or equivalent at the OPW, local authorities who are represented by the County and City Management Association, Waterways Ireland, ESB, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Department of Planning, the Department of Regional and Rural Affairs, Bord na Móna, the Environmental Protection Agency and Irish Water.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times