River Clare: A highly modified Natura 2000 river

The River Clare is located in Counties Mayo and Galway, and is the largest tributary of the Corrib-Mask catchment. It is 93 km long and has a catchment area of 1,036km2. The River Clare flows across the north Galway plain though the towns of Tuam and Claregalway before joining the eastern side of lower Lough Corrib.  Its principal tributaries are the River Sinking, the River Nanny, the River Grange and the River Abbert. A large section of its middle reaches was formerly a turlough, which, at 6.5 square kilometres, used to be Ireland’s largest. Much of the River Clare is included in the Lough Corrib Special Area of Conservation.

Arterial drainage, by trying to rush water as fast as possible to the bottom of this catchment, caused the flooding problems experienced at Claregalway during November 2009. Further drainage works, as proposed, are not the solution to this problem. 

The Clare River catchment was devastated by arterial drainage works in the 1950s and 1960s and the scars of this programme and ongoing OPW drainage maintenance works remain visible today. There have also been impacts from instream development works which focused entirely on salmonids – often to the detriment of other ecological interests.

Although drainage works undertaken in the 19th century may have improved access for salmon to the catchment, the modern drainage scheme devastated the ecology of the catchment. Riparian wildlife, including the largest turlough and wetland systems in Ireland, was destroyed by this scheme. A glance at the OSI mapviewer – which allows a comparison of 6″ historic maps on the with 2005 aerial photography – gives a clear indication of the extent of physical diversity and natural heritage that was lost as a result of the Corrib-Clare Arterial drainage scheme. This scheme was the largest scheme of its type ever undertaken in Ireland and, after perhaps the Shannon and Lee hydroelectric schemes, had the most significant ecological impact on a Ireland’s natural river heritage.

River-Dalgan-(Clare)

The upper River Clare (or Dalgan River) downstream of Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo.

River Clare Upper

Semi-natural stretch of the River Clare, upstream of the Sinking River confluence.

This stretch of the River Clare downstream of the Sinking River confluence has recovered from arterial drainage. Unfortunately the OPW would consider that this was due for drainage maintenance.

This stretch of the River Clare downstream of the Sinking River confluence has recovered from arterial drainage. Unfortunately the OPW would consider that this was due for drainage maintenance.

Channelised River Clare at Kilcreevanty, Co Galway.

Channelised River Clare at Kilcreevanty, Co Galway.

River-Clare-near-Corofin

Middle reaches of the River Clare upstream of Corofin, Co Galway. Drainage of the middle and upper catchment resulted in extensive flooding of the town of Claregalway in November 2009, and the current OPW proposal for further drainage works seems to be very short-sighted. Restoring flood plains and wetlands and the ecological services that they formerly provided would surely be a more modern and sustainable approach for management in this catchment.

River-Abbert

The lower reaches of the River Abbert at Ballyglunin. This is the largest tributary of the River Clare and is a major spawning tributary for salmon. When the river channel here was being enlarged by blasting in 1955 as part of the OPW arterial drainage scheme, it has been reported that the river suddenly disappeared down a hole in its bed – resulting in several kilometres of the river drying out. Flow was only restored when the newly opened swallow holes were blocked. Later, an extensive cave system was discovered. River water still leaks into the cave.

IMG_0614

The former course of the River Clare south of Tuam, Co Galway. The river was diverted from this course in the 1850’s with the diversion channel deepened again in the 1950’s. The old river channel still floods here today.

IMG_0606

The “new” River Clare south of Tuam, Co Galway. This is a channelised rock-cut. Most of the spoil heaps have now been removed by local landowners after being dumped here by the OPW during the 1950’s.

Lost Clonkeen Lough

The photos below show the former bed of the River Clare at Corofin, Co Galway. The river here has been severely modified by arterial drainage schemes which were undertaken in the 1850’s and 1950’s and the river now runs through a deep rock cut (also shown). Formerly there was a large permanent lake and extensive turlough system upstream of Corofin, called Clonkeen Lough.

Parts of the river below Corofin used to run underground prior to the drainage works. However, historical mapping indicates the presence of numerous eel weirs on the temporary channels, showing that migratory fish could still use the catchment. The shear number of eel weirs in particular shown on the historical mapping indicates the former importance of this catchment as habitat for the European eel. Today the River Clare is a highly modified channelized river and the only reminder of the extensive turlough systems that used to exist here are the townland names (e.g. Turloughmore, Turloughmartin, Lough George etc.).

Old Bridge Corofin (2)

This was the former bed of the River Clare at Corofin, Co Galway. This stretch of river was influenced by karst drainage with seasonal and underground sections. However, there are numerous references to eel weirs on historical mapping indicating the importance of this river to migratory species. Upstream from this site the River Clare formed a large permanent lake (Clonkeen Lough) and a number of expansive seasonal turloughs and wetlands.

Clonkeen-Lough

The former Clonkeen Lough which was located upstream of Corofin, Co Galway, at the confluence of the Grange River.

River Clare Corofin (2)

Former course of the River Clare at Corofin, Co Galway.

Old Bridge Corofin (1)

Corofin castle on the the former course of the River Clare, Co Galway.

River Clare (5)

Channelised River Clare at Corofin, Co Galway. This rock-cut drained a former permanent lake (Clonkeen Lough) and associated turlough systems upstream from here. This rock-cut was first excavated in the 1850’s but a major arterial drainage scheme was implemented on the River Clare in the 1950s’.

Lackagh rock-cut, on the lower reaches of the River Clare.

Lackagh rock-cut, on the lower reaches of the River Clare. This arterial drainage channel conveyed water directly down to Claregalway during November 2009 causing extensive flooding.

New flood scheme proposal

Arterial drainage works on the middle and upper parts of this catchment really just transferred the flooding problem downstream – away from grant supported agricultural lands to urban areas at the lower end of the catchment. The extensive flooding of the town of Claregalway in November 2009 is a key example of this. The current €7.1 million OPW proposal for further drainage works seems to be very short-sighted. Restoring flood plains and wetlands and the ecological services that they formerly provided would surely be a more modern and sustainable approach for flood management in this catchment.

However, the OPW are currently planning to implement a new arterial drainage scheme on this river in response to the flooding of November 2009. This is despite that fact that most of the flooding problems in this catchment have actually resulted from the counter-productive effects of arterial drainage. By attempting to get water to drain as quickly as possible from the middle and upper reaches of this catchment, the OPW have simply transferred the problem of flooding – from grant supported agricultural lands – downstream to urban areas such as Claregalway in the lower reaches of the river.

The economic cost of the damages consequent to the flood of November 2009 was estimated to be €12.1 million. However, the majority of these damages were for the Claregalway region (€11.8m alone). It is clear that we should be looking at more sustainable flood schemes and aim to slow the rate at which water moves down this catchment during flood events, rather than increasing it.  We should be prioritising the protection of urban areas over grant supported agricultural lands.

It is also noted that 300% of normal rainfall fell during November 2009 and the River Clare could never be made large enough to convey all the water which would fall in the catchment during flood events of this magnitude. Arterial drainage, by trying to rush water as fast as possible to the bottom of this catchment, caused the flooding problems experienced at Claregalway during November 2009. Further drainage works, as proposed, are not the solution to this problem.

Flooding in Claregalway on the lower River Clare in November 2009. Building on the floodplain here (see old bridge on right of photo), and the arterial drainage scheme which aimed to rush water downstream as fast as possible, did not help matters here. The current plan is to deepen and widen the river upstream from here even further – should we not be looking to restore the old turloughs and floodplains instead?

Flooding in Claregalway on the lower River Clare in November 2009. Building on the floodplain here (see old bridge on right of photo), and the arterial drainage scheme which aimed to rush water downstream as fast as possible, did not help matters here. The current plan is to deepen and widen the river upstream from here even further – should we not be looking to restore the old turloughs and floodplains instead?

Nine arches bridge in the middle of Claregalway village. This was the former course of the River Clare and the river returned to this route in November 2009.

Nine arches bridge in the middle of Claregalway village. This was the former course of the River Clare and the river returned to this route in November 2009.

There are alternatives to costly approach of draining lands, dredging rivers, and trying to rush the water to the sea as quick as possible. We need to be looking to back-to-nature flood schemes.

For further information please see the following:-

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management have said that “Projects working with nature to reduce flood risk are needed ” and the Environment Agency has said that there should be “a pond in every field in the areas where flood prevention is needed“. This would of course bring benefits to both wildlife and flood prevention, but would impact on agricultural lands. However, as George Monbiot would argue, farmers are being subsidised to do the opposite of what is really required to manage floods. Subsidies given to farmers should be used for projects that benefit society and not just the farmers themselves. We need to be looking at back-to-nature flood protection schemes for North Galway.

2 responses to “River Clare: A highly modified Natura 2000 river

  1. Pingback: Clare River system – Claretbumbler·

  2. Walked the stretch from crusheeny bridge to cregmore bridge..was upsetting to see the riverbank being destroyed!!!

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