Opinion Piece on behalf of John Sydenham, Commissioner the Office of Public Works and Ann Doherty, Chief Executive, Cork City Council

16 September 19

The Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme (LLFRS) represents the largest State investment in flood defence ever undertaken in the country.  It is critically needed infrastructure and an important element of the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 Strategy.

After centuries of devastation and damage to households and businesses, the acknowledged need for action has been matched by a full commitment of State funding for the project and interagency co-operation involving the Office of Public Works (OPW), both Cork local authorities and the ESB.  The Scheme will provide protection to over 900 homes and 1200 business properties in the City.

It is the result of over thirteen years of careful consideration and study of the Lee Catchment and the nature of flooding affecting Cork. Benchmarked against best international practice, the Scheme’s multifaceted approach takes account of the complexity of flooding in Cork which is both tidal and fluvial (river).  In addition to the distress and damage caused to residents and business owners, it is worth remembering that flooding in 2009 and 2014 resulted in a reported €140 million of damage in Cork.

The key elements include a state of the art flood forecasting system which together with revised operating procedures to regulate Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid dams, significantly reduce the peak flow of water reaching the city at times of flood. It involves the creation of washlands to the west of the city, an enhanced early flood warning system, diversion of waters from the south channel into north channel and low-level quay side defences.

Beyond protecting Cork city and a large part of the Lower Lee catchment against flooding, the project facilitates a transformational urban renewal scheme repositioning the River Lee at the centre of the daily experience of local people and visitors alike. The LLFRS will deliver exciting improvements to the public realm along Cork’s quaysides. New walkways, cycleways and plazas will be created from the Lee Fields to the City Centre, bringing the river closer to the public. The renewal of the public realm will animate an environmentally friendly agenda on a scale not previously seen in Cork.

The River Lee will be more open to view, to use and enjoy than ever before.  Eight new access points will make using the river easier for the city’s many boaters, anglers and rowers.  Historical features will be protected from flooding and become enhanced attractions.

Improved pedestrian/cycle routes and upgraded public realm on Lapps Quay west will connect seamlessly with the new civic space at Parnell Plaza.  The latter is being advanced under Cork City Council’s Morrison’s Island project, currently in planning and crucial for the protection of the central island. This could be delivered now.

At Ferry Walk, the opportunity has been taken to integrate flood protection in the design of a new plaza, creating a new civic space. This also facilitates the improved setting for the historic Daly’s (Shakey) Bridge. Fitzgerald’s Park and the Lee Fields will use new ground profiles to provide flood protection, creating new environments to enjoy.

The community of Cork has engaged with the Scheme through numerous public consultation phases spanning over a decade. This has made it possible to take on board, to the greatest extent, the views of the public throughout the Scheme’s evolution.  This has been achieved without compromising the core scheme elements developed from the comprehensive scientific and empirical analysis on which it is based. The result is a high-quality Scheme that provides the essential flood defence elements while addressing the wider requirements of the citizens of Cork such as aesthetics, heritage, social, amenity, and health and wellbeing.

Those who object to the LLFRS have managed to put forward the narrative that the project would destroy the city’s quay walls in one fell swoop, hide the River Lee behind vast high walls and destroy amenity along both channels and upriver. As narratives go, it is easy to follow and emotive.  However, it is simply not true.

Why would Cork City Council, which has done more than any organisation to promote the use of the River Lee, be party to blocking the river, limiting its use? Meitheal Mara, the Lee Swim, Ocean to City, Seafest, to name but some, are all supported, funded and marketed by the City Council, whose stated aim is to increase recreational use of the river.

Why would the OPW, the State agency with special responsibility for conservation and the protection of heritage participate in a scheme that is destructive of heritage or history? The OPW has ensured that the Scheme’s design has been informed by comprehensive participation and advice of highly experienced landscape and conservation architects, archaeologists and architectural historians.

The claim that the Scheme involves 15 km of walls is totally untrue. It is fiction. There will be  no high walls anywhere along the city quays. None. The majority of quayside parapets will only be to knee height.  The highest new defence is lower than a number of the existing quays. Some of the proposed quayside defences involve demountable barriers that will never be seen except during extreme floods.  In many other areas, flood protection is seamlessly integrated into the landscape such that they will not be perceived as flood protection measures at all.

The argument that a tidal barrier will solve all Cork’s flooding problems is also untrue. Whilst a correctly sited and designed tidal barrier could resolve the tidal problem, it would not address the more destructive river flooding problem. To put this in context, a tidal barrier would have made little difference during the most significant Cork flood in living memory in 2009. If a tidal barrier were built, river side defences would still be required through the city to address the problem of river flooding and to reduce the frequency of required closures to acceptable levels.  Very detailed consideration of a tidal barrier has been undertaken on the part of the OPW, Cork City Council, and their Consultants. These investigations have involved extensive studies including detailed hydrodynamic modelling, consultation with the Port of Cork, analysis by international experts of issues like navigational safety and ecological impacts in our environmentally protected sites in the harbour. This analysis confirms that a tidal barrier is neither viable or appropriate for Cork at this time. If the various initiatives to combat climate change in the coming decades are unsuccessful and if a tidal barrier becomes necessary in the future the currently proposed quayside defences will be an essential component of such a solution.

In contrast, the proposed Scheme offers the optimum solution to all flooding issues in Cork for the medium to long term and is the only technically viable and cost beneficial option which provides the required standard of protection to Cork.

The Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme has been delayed long enough.  It is time to move ahead with it for the sake of those directly and personally affected by flooding and for the sake of the city which needs appropriate infrastructure on which to attract investment, create jobs and build its future. It will be a catalyst for Cork, a city of change.