Saving Lough Carra

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HOPE FOR THE FUTURE A new five-year project aims to improve the Lough Carra's ailing water quality and protect and enhance biodiversity in the surrounding Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Pic: Darren Moran/Firefly Photography

New €5 million project to breathe new life into one of Ireland’s most unique lakes

Oisín McGovern

THE approval of €5 million under the European Union’s LIFE programme marks a major step forward in the saving of Lough Carra.
It will fund a five-year project that aims to improve the lake’s ailing water quality and protect and enhance biodiversity in the surrounding Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA). The project will be overseen by Mayo County Council in cooperation with Lough Carra Catchment Association and several state bodies.
Situated by the historic Moorehall estate near the village of Carnacon, the lake is one of the most unique in Europe, let alone in Ireland.
Measuring at 1,560 hectares and dotted with islands, bays and inlets, it is the largest marl lake in the country, and the only lake of its kind outside of the Burren.
As well as being a popular amenity on hot summer days, the lake’s fishing also attracts people from across the country and further afield.
However, contamination from agriculture in recent years has raised pollution in the lake to dangerous levels.

‘Considerable ecological stress’
EXCESSIVE nutrient enrichment from fertilisers and other agricultural byproducts have darkened the ‘pale pellucid green’ described by Ireland’s most famous botanist Robert Praeger when he visited the area in 1906.
Ugly algal bloom and jelly-like ophrydium are now a sad but common sight along the shores of Lough Carra, of one of the Great Western Lakes.
Deterioration of such lime-rich marl lakes can be rapid and, most worryingly, potentially irreversible.
Indeed, the level of pollution has reached the point where fish life and the local drinking-water scheme could be jeopardised in less than a lifetime.
Al McDonnell, a local county councillor and long-time advocate for Lough Carra and Moorehall, has witnessed the decline of the lake firsthand.
“I’ve been fishing it since the 1970s, and at that stage it was a totally different lake to what it is now in terms of water colouration, the invasive species on the bed of the lake and the dramatic increase in the rush growth, which is an indicator of excessive nutrification,” Cllr McDonnell tells The Mayo News during a recent interview in his Castlebar office.
In 2018, snorkelling scientist Dr Cillian Roden warned that Lough Carra was under ‘considerable ecological stress, and the assumption it is Ireland’s best example of a marl lake may cease to be true in the near future’.
In April of that year, a group of concerned locals held the inaugural meeting of The Lough Carra Catchment Association. They had one simple goal: “To restore, protect and conserve the ecological integrity of Lough Carra and its lakeshore habitats and to ensure the quality of drinking water from the lough.”
Last year, the association submitted 152-page feasibility study for funding under the EU LIFE programme.
Earlier this year, news broke that their second application had been successful.
With five full-time staff and a project leader, the project will be assisted by bodies such as the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Geological Survey Ireland; Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

‘Tipping point’
LOUGH Carra Catchment Association member Chris Huxley says there is ‘no simple answer’ when trying to assess the current ecological state of the lake.
“According to the criteria that the EPA use for assessing water quality, it is quite good. The problem is the nutrients that have been entering the lake leave the water very quickly and get locked up in the marl lakebed,” says Huxley, who co-authored the book Lough Carra along with his wife Lynda.
“Overall, the ecology of the lake has very nearly collapsed. It’s on the verge, and we’re hoping that this project will stop that and reverse this decline,” he adds.
“There is a tipping point, and if more nutrients enter the lake in any great quantity there is a risk that it will become a totally different sort of lake.”
Already, one of the two group water schemes served by the lake has been put on a long-term boil water notice.
It is hoped that the new mitigation measures will prevent the lake from turning into what Chris describes as ‘pea soup’.

Paying farmers
One of the primary measures is to address the long-running issue of nutrients from slurry and fertiliser leeching into the lake from nearby farmland. As a groundwater lake, Lough Carra is susceptible to fertilisers on land that does not even touch the water.
“Nearly half of the funding of the project actually goes toward paying farmers to adapt what they are doing,” Chris Huxley explains.
“It’s a results-based scheme, where farmers will be paid according to how well they do things.
“Each farm that is chosen for this will have a farm plan devised on a field-by-field basis…where they will be told what needs to be done to reduce nutrient loss.”
The results of the measure will be assessed by phosphorus and nitrate levels in the water before, during and after the five-year project.
However, Chris says these practices will remain in place long-term to ensure their success.
“It’s a new agricultural system that’s been tried in Ireland over the last few years, and it’s proved to be highly successful. In the long-run, I think it’s going to be highly adapted throughout most of the country,” he says.
Coupled with the reduced use of fertilisers, demonstration plots will also be purchased to show farmers how the various measures will operate.
Grants will also be made available for the planting of trees while buffer zones and constructed wetlands built will be constructed to soak up nutrients before they enter the lake.
Cllr Al McDonnell acknowledges that agriculture is part of the problem, but says that local farmers like him intend to be part of the solution.
“Farmers are not deliberate polluters. They are as interested […] as any body of people in saving Lough Carra,” he says.
“It’s not just about angling, it’s not just about boating, it’s not just about the visual amenity, we drink the water.
“I’ve said it many times over the years, I can do without the fishing, but I cannot do without the water.”

Long game
While Chris Huxley and his wife Lynda, also a conservationist, are enormously welcoming of the development, the results of the project may not be noticed for decades to come.
“How long is going to take? A hell of a long time. We don’t expect to see miracles at the end of just five years,” Chris says.
“We expect to see minor improvements in the lake at that time. The main one will be to stop the flood of nutrients into that lake as much as possible, to try and reduce what’s actually entering the lake. If we can do that, that will be a major success.
“It will never return to exactly the way it was because ecosystems like this fluctuate naturally anyway with climate change, rainfall and land use,” he adds.
“Maybe in 40 or 50 years time somebody will look at it and say it’s the same as the way Praeger described it.”
Cllr McDonnell says that Lough Carra can be an example of how to deal with the ‘national problem’ of poor water quality.
“The potential progress for this project is being watched very closely, not just in Mayo, but across this island of Ireland, and I’m also informed that there are interested bodies in Europe watching as well to see how successful this initiative will be.”