Numerous meetings and events are piling pressure on those who oversee two hydro-electric dams blocking the river Lee at Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid. A public meeting on 17 November in Macroom, attracted around 250 people to Macroom Castle Hotel, to discuss the potential of developing the Gearagh, a unique stretch of wetland forest on the river Lee, as an eco-attraction that would safeguard its future. Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada presented the meeting and spoke passionately about the need for intervention. “We are caretakers for future generations. We can't let the rivers die on our watch.” She intends to make a submission to the ESB on behalf of stakeholders in an effort to find a long-term management strategy for the area.
Film-maker Declan O'Mahony, whose documentary River-Runner tells the story of salmon on the river Lee, spoke at the event. He explained how he had come to be interested in following up the story of the salmon, which are unable to traverse the dams for breeding upriver. He told how he tried several times to meet with the ESB to discuss the situation with them, but failed to get an audience until he contacted Liadh who managed to arrange a meeting. Declan tells the story: “Liadh, her assistant and myself were sitting in that dark dismal vault that is Inniscarra dam with five people from the heads of ESB, all associated, and it was a bizarre surreal meeting because it denied the facts that the last five years of my life have discovered and realised. If the dams were working and if the law of the land the Fishery Consolidations Act was upheld there would be salmon in Lough Allua, but they're not there, simple as that.”
Dr Simon Harrison from UCC then talked about the ecological importance of the Gearagh, a wooded inland river delta. He outlined the results of recent academic studies, carried out under the guidance of local Gearagh expert Kevin Corcoran, that have estimated the Gearagh forest to be upwards of 10,000 years old, which makes it Ireland's most ancient forest. He told how he had made the discovery by digging on some of the Gearagh's wooded islands where he found a type of rich black soil he has never seen. In conclusion he said,“what these old islands represent is a very fragile woodland that can easily be destroyed and will take centuries, if ever, to come back. So we're looking at a woodland that is totally natural, has naturally persistent processes, natural regeneration, natural vegetation and really has never been disturbed by man, so in that sense, it's absolutely unique.” He said the major threat was that farmers would be draining their land right up to the edge of the Gearagh, “hemming it in.”
Dr Harrison also talked about the problem of deciding what to do with the technologically defunct dams. He said the manager at Inniscarra told him that the dam there could only produce equivalent electricity to one modern medium-sized wind turbine, making its intended purpose rather defunct. While on the one hand the dams contributed to the destruction of over half the Gearagh forest, on the other hand they have a role in flood management for Cork city, while the lakes they created have become important sites for wading birds. Harrison said we need to consider all of these aspects in deciding what to do about the dams, using a “cost benefit analysis”.
The next speaker in Macroom was John Lynch, environmental specialist with the Lee Valley Enterprise Board and a director of Birdwatch Ireland. He told how steadily over the years numbers of wildfowl including species like tufted duck, pochard, and widgeon have seen dramatic declines. He said there's a need to control invasive species and unlimited public access to the Gearagh. At the same time he called for more structured eco-tourism incorporating “a management plan” with “checks and balances”. He said “we're at a cusp of the habitat degenerating, through disturbance, through invasive species, through water quality degradation,” but he added, it could instead become “an educational natural heritage resource that keeps improving.”
Kieran Murphy, newly appointed Water and Community Officer with Cork County Council, spoke briefly to explain his role in facilitating community involvement. He said the first cycle of the Water Framework Directive was “a bit of a failure. Ireland is being punished because we haven't got the communities involved.” He said his job is to work from ground level to encourage communities to take responsibility for their own water quality and enable them to set up projects however he can. He added, “what's happening here is exactly what the people in Europe are looking for.”
Salmon Come Back
On Sunday 28 November an event called Salmon Come Back, organised by Fred LaHaye and Julia Kemp, of Bia Gleann na Laoi, took place in Inchigeelagh. Speakers included bat expert Conor Kelleher, Bernie Connolly of Cork Environmental Forum and Kieran Murphy, Cork County Council Water and Community Officer. It was another well-attended event which enhanced public knowledge of the ecology of the river.
Conor Kelleher spoke about bats, whose status is an important indicator for the health of alluvial insect life. He said we have 9 different types of bat in Ireland which “represent two-thirds of our mammals”. He said they have been declining because many of them depend on insects that breed in water. Eutrophication (lack of oxygen due to over-fertilization of water) has affected many insect species. He spoke about daubenton bats whose reliance on the rivers is total, and whose nesting sites under old bridges are now protected which has helped them, but that more is needed.
Bernie Connolly spoke about the power of engaging adults in wildlife surveys, citing coastwatch as model where an interactive mapping system allows people to submit wildlife observations very easily. She said: “The form is so easy to complete, they do some training, showing them what to look our for, and it's not complicated. [...] People get really interested in what biodiversity they are seeing, litter they're seeing, what other issues, and the same kind of thing could really be done [for the rivers].”
Kieran Murphy offered a more in-depth review of his work in Duhallow, part of the Blackwater catchment where farmers and local stakeholders all came together to improve water quality through raising awareness and carrying out simple interventions on the river like placing stones along vulnerable river banks to prevent erosion. A segment from Eco Eye about catchment management of the Blackwater was later shown in which farmers on the Blackwater went fishing, some for the first time, giving them another perspective on the river.