Dáil Éireann - Volume 669 - 03 December, 2008

Hospital Services. - Flood Relief.

[611]   Deputy Seán Sherlock: I raise this issue because there is deep concern in Fermoy about proposals made by the OPW to replace the weir in the town with a rock ramp pass. People fear for their rowing club which some argue has been in existence since Adam was a boy. They fear that if the weir is replaced by a rock ramp, it will have untold consequences for the water level in the River Blackwater, thus negating the amenity value of the rowing club.

Why is the Government proceeding with this folly? There is no justification for the project. The OPW’s flood alleviation works were sanctioned and welcomed but it is now seeking to change the weir, to which there seems to be no logic. When I put a question to the Minister on the issue on 4 November, I was told the direction had been issued in the interests of conserving wild salmon resources and avoiding the initiation of infringement proceedings by the European Commission under the habitats directive on foot of a complaint lodged with the Environment Directorate-General of the Commission.

Given that the Government is seeking to adhere to the habitats directive, the people of Fermoy and I would like to know the nature of the complaint and who lodged it. We want to know the justification for it. If it is to ensure enough salmon can get up the river, plenty of salmon are being caught by rod on the river. It does not require the destruction of the weir to ensure more salmon can get up the river because there is a much cheaper solution that would ensure the continuation of a fish pass without compromising the valuable amenity constituted by the rowing club in Fermoy.

We want to ensure the future viability of the rowing club. We do not see the economic justification for the proposal in the current climate. If the Minister of State tells me that the project is being carried out by the OPW because Fermoy Town Council cannot afford to do so, she should note that the former Minister of State, Deputy John Browne, visited the town in 2006. Two years have passed since his visit and the project is to be hitched to an OPW flood alleviation plan, to which there is no logic to whatsoever. The people of Fermoy cannot comprehend it.

The EU habitats directive is being used as a battering ram to carry out the project. There is no justification for this. If there was a complaint lodged to the Environment Directorate-General of the Commission, will the Minister of State make a copy of it available to the House in order that Members will know exactly who is behind the works? I do not believe for one moment that the OPW is fully responsible and believe there are other mechanisms at play. I would go so far as to say the Southern Regional Fisheries Board is the main instigator and that it is seeking to justify its position. It will gladly sacrifice a rowing club to this end but should realise that, ultimately, as many salmon will get up the river without a rock ramp as they would if one were installed. Hiding behind the fallacy of a habitats directive is typical of a Government which has used the European Union when it wants to push through some bad proposals. This project will have an adverse effect on the community in Fermoy. I ask the Government to rethink its strategy, particularly in the current economic climate.

  Deputy Mary Wallace: The proposed works at Fermoy do not involve the removal or replacement of the weir but rather the essential replacement of the fish pass to permit the unheeded passage of migratory fish, as required under the habitats directive.

The background to the current proposals on works at Fermoy weir is that a complaint was made to the European Commission alleging that the weir was acting as a barrier to migrating salmon which are being injured in their attempts to migrate for spawning purposes. Salmon is one of a number of species in the River Blackwater that are protected species under the habitats directive. The river also happens to be a designated special area of conservation

[612] The Commission has indicated to officials that failure to rectify the position will result in infringement proceedings being initiated against Ireland. This could result in very substantial fines being imposed by the European Court of Justice. In these circumstances, the engineering section of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources investigated the matter. Its report of July 2006 indicated that the weir acted as a barrier not only to salmon but also to other protected species, namely, lamprey and shad.

In the light of the findings of the report and the complaint to the Commission, a direction under section 116 of the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act 1959 was issued by the Minister to Fermoy Town Council, as owner of the weir. The council is required to lower part of the weir, consistent with retaining sufficient depth for rowing in recognition of the amenity enjoyed by Fermoy Rowing Club, and to install a rock ramp pass in the lowered weir to facilitate fish passage. While the optimal solution to barriers to migrating fish, purely from a fisheries conservation perspective, is to remove them, at no time was it proposed to remove the weir, nor is removal part of the current proposals. This approach was adopted in order to protect the recognised amenity enjoyed by Fermoy Rowing Club on the River Blackwater.

An opportunity has arisen to have the works on the weir completed alongside the first phase of a flood relief scheme for the area to be carried out by the OPW. There are obvious efficiencies and economies associated with pursuing this course of action. I advise the Deputy that departmental officials, at the request of Fermoy Town Council, held a public consultation in the town recently to explain the nature and purpose of the proposed works. The Department also met representatives of Fermoy Rowing Club and its engineering adviser to discuss the proposals. Concerns were expressed during the consultation about aspects of the proposal and a number of measures to alleviate these concerns have now been proposed. Under the revised proposal the width of the fish pass would be decreased. This will reduce further the extent to which upstream water levels will drop below the existing weir crest, in low flow periods to 85 millimetres, or 3.4 inches. That is in the normal flow of a dry summer. In a severe drought period, the drop in water levels below the existing weir crest will not exceed 175 millimetres, or 7 inches, according to the engineers. I am advised there is deep water upstream of the weir and these projected water levels during low flow should not give rise to any interference with the activities of the rowing club.

The additional proposals to be designed as part of the project include the installation of a pontoon slipway, pending the building of a new slipway by the OPW, as part of phase 2 of its flood relief scheme; the removal of gravel from the river bed at the strand area where it has naturally silted up and limits rowing; with the consent of the owner the cutting back of weeds and foliage that limit the width of the river available for rowing. These works are to be carried out by the Southern Regional Fisheries Board.

I am advised that the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Seán Power, hopes to hold a number of meetings to clarify whether there are any issues that have not been addressed in the revised proposals before he decides whether to proceed with the necessary works, in compliance with domestic and European law.

  The Dáil adjourned at 9.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 4 December 2008.