The Covie Carrowbeg clean-up campaign

De Facto

MEN AT WORK Volunteers clearing away the controversial ‘islands’ of vegetation in the Carrowbeg River at the Mall, Westport, and onlookers.

Why some Westport locals have taken the Mall’s river vegetation into their own hands

De Facto
Liamy MacNally

A group of Covie volunteers has been busy cleaning out the Carrowbeg River on the Mall in Westport town centre. The action was taken to prevent the clogging up of the Mall with the over- and underwater growth of weeds and algae. It is a bigger job than anyone anticipated, with bottles, phones and tablets among the debris.
Unfortunately, the powers that be – from Mayo Co Council to the Inland Fisheries and the Office of Public Works – have no river maintenance plan with each body sidestepping responsibility. Add to this, the losing of our local town council and see how local democracy can be easily disenfranchised.
The clean-up action has also been met with criticism on site and online. Some people are genuinely concerned about the work but once it is explained they understand while others are unwilling to listen. Keyboard warriors are in meltdown, piling vitriolic negatives upon negatives.
Many ‘armchair army’ commentators (some of whom have never set foot in the town!) fail to recognise that the majority of people engaged in the clean-up are local people with local knowledge. They know what they are doing. They know if the work is not done it will pose serious dangers for the river and the wildlife it supports.
Apart from the ‘big island’ at the Fairgreen covering traditional trout spawning grounds there is a simple truth being lost. From the Fairgreen Bridge down to the library the river has been diverted from its natural path and flows on a manmade canalised bed. Where the river flows at the Fairgreen Bridge the river bed was deliberately widened. This allows the flow of water to slow down as it travels over the manmade bed which is protected on each side by the stone river walls.    
Unfortunately, the islands (ever expanding) are having the opposite effect. They are reducing the amount of space the river has to flow through, speeding up the flow and scoring the centre of the river bed, making it deeper. The dislodged stones can be seen below the steps opposite the Garda Station. This seriously affects the manmade river bed, which in turn affects the river walls, with a risk of making them unstable.
The lack of a proper maintenance plan over recent years has allowed bushes and plants to grow and become embedded in the river walls, above and below the waterline. The effect of this is that all the walls have been weakened because the stones have been loosened. Even the ‘island’ has young trees growing on it. Where will their roots go?
There is also the issue of the proliferation of the underwater plant growth. We all remember, during childhood summers, outdoor council staff, like John Fadian, Vinny McMenamin, Jim Moran, Eugene Monaghan and others, as they raked the river to guarantee a regular waterflow and healthy wildlife. In later years, the wall was broken and Chris Moran’s tractor used to assist staff to clean the river. Dippers, ducks, grey wagtails, kingfishers, otters, water rats, cranes and waterhens lived alongside trout, eels, sticklebacks and numerous river insects.
Many parts of the river walls need to be pointed as a matter of urgency so there is no further deterioration. Statutory bodies will need to ensure the ongoing safety of the river walls, which have many loose stones. This clean-up has highlighted how serious this problem actually is.
The river clean-up, as an environmental issue, is more ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. It is environmentally necessary and has highlighted a serious issue with the river walls. The river flowing through the town is a human construct, not a natural one, and work is needed for its future safety.
Ongoing generations – locals and people who moved here – have contributed to the beauty of ‘Westport of the Welcomes’. In embracing those who recently came to live among us in a town we all love, I salute those like Tommy Brennan, Matt Moran, Ivan Cooper and numerous others who made Westport their home in the past and shared their gifts willingly and respectfully.