18th January

Urgent action required to save premier Irish lake

Diarmuid Mucahy outlines the issues

Lough Corrib can boast many accolades: It is one of the Great Western lakes; it is a priceless regional amenity; it is one of the most significant remaining brown trout fishing lakes in Europe, and it is the source of water supplies to Galway city and a number of other local towns and villages. The lake, however, is in a state of flux. Changes to its water may be about to seriously impact on all who depend on the lake for water, for a livelihood or simply as an amenity.

Recent studies carried out by NUI Galway suggest that overall there has been no significant changes in the lake over time; however there are unquestionably localised difficulties, many of which were clearly evident last summer.

 

It is not news to say there are many pressures on the water quality of Lough Corrib. Firstly, large amounts of untreated sewage are running into it from towns along the lakeshore, including Oughterard, Headford and Clonbur, as well as from individual out-dated and improperly maintained septic tanks.

Secondly, Lough Corrib is surrounded by forestry plantations, which have been cultivated for years, and are now being cut down for use as timber products for the building trade and other industries. The angling community is concerned that excessive felling of trees is leading to large-scale run off of both nutrients and acidic residues into the feeder streams to the lake, thus exacerbating the problem. The Owenriff River, which is a rare national treasure because of its population of freshwater pearl mussel, is also affected.

Thirdly, there is the ongoing question of agricultural runoff. Studies have been done on the effects of agricultural runoff on Lough Cara and Lough Mask, both of which feed directly into Lough Corrib.

It is uncertain how big an impact this has on the overall water quality. The Cara/Mask/Corrib Water Protection Company Ltd, which was set up to highlight the difficulties of the three Western lakes and to push for solutions, has called for by-laws to control the spreading of slurry and other fertilisers close to the lakeshore, feeder streams and rivers. Five counties have brought in by-laws, according to this organisation.

Impact
• trout stocks in the lake show signs of being compromised. Anglers report a very poor Mayfly hatch this year, in addition to poor catches of fish, many of which were in poor condition

• anglers report that areas of the lake bottom are covered in a green cloak, which may be some form of algae, and which is likely to be detrimental to the Mayfly

• anglers in Oughterard who net fish to strip as part of the lake restocking programme are wondering what condition their prospective ‘catch’ will have, and how this may impact on future restocking plans

• concern in the communities abutting the lake about their livelihood

The solution
The problem is multi-factorial, so the solution must also be multi-factorial.

Sewage treatment: The Pre Draft Development Plan, October 2003, for Oughterard, acknowledges that the town needs an upgraded sewage treatment facility to address at least this part of the problem. (Other towns such as Headford and Clonbur are in a similar situation.) The process to make these a reality must be progressed as a matter of urgency. All relevant public bodies must act, and act quickly to push the process forward. Septic tank runoff must also be addressed urgently; a system of regular monitoring has been mooted.

Forestry acidification: There have been suggestions that forestry activity in sensitive areas around Lough Corrib should be managed in a much more careful and less environmentally threatening manner. Certainly, if the contribution to the problem is as serious as is suggested, then some form of direct action must be initiated.

Among the proposals being put forward by the Cara/Mask/Corrib Water Protection Group is that an Environmental Impact Assessment should be required prior to any clear-felling and replanting of forest areas. The group has also suggested that the Forestry Act needs to be reviewed in this regard. All relevant stakeholders should engage in meaningful discourse on this issue, and the problem must be dealt with immediately.

Farm runoff: All possible means of stopping farm effluent entry into the lake must be put into practice. Consideration must be given to helping the farming community realise the impact that their activities may be having on Lough Corrib. Methods need to be introduced that are less damaging to the lake and to waterways generally.

A number of lakes in Europe have been rescued from pollution difficulties, Lake Annecy in France being a good example. We should seek to learn from those who have acted to save their freshwater lakes, and take on board their experiences − be they changes in legislation, activity practices, or both. Expert opinion must then be engaged to oversee a constructive action plan to preserve Lough Corrib.

Ensuring that the water quality of Lough Corrib does not deteriorate will mean taking tough decisions. It will undoubtedly mean spending money, and solving the above problems will not happen overnight. It will take time to make it happen, positive action must start now.

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