The mystery of the Mall

Features

CLOSE CALL High water levels in Westport’s Mall in December 2015. Only a considerable response by emergency services and locals halted considerable flooding to homes along the Mall. There are fears about how well prepared the Mall is for a future flooding event.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Flooding fears over Westport’s river compounded by confusion over who is in charge

Feature
Edwin McGreal

Who is in charge of the Mall river in Westport town?
You would think there’s an easy answer to that question but like much in Irish life, it is far from simple.
It is a question local councillors have been unable to answer and goes to the heart of many of the problems with addressing flooding concerns in Westport town centre.
Mayo County Council have stated they are not in charge of the Mall  river – the section of the Carrowbeg River which goes through Westport’s Mall. Inland Fisheries Ireland have done likewise. The OPW do not appear to be in charge while it has not been ruled out that it could be in private ownership.
There was a lengthy discussion on the matter at the November meeting of the Westport/Belmullet Municipal District and also at the October meeting but many of the issues remain unresolved.
Cllr Christy Hyland could not get his head around it.
“When things are going well, we’re all in charge. When things are going wrong there’s no one in charge. I am learning today that there’s nobody in charge of The Mall river which flows through Westport. This is absolutely crazy,” he said.
There are a raft of issues interlinked. The concerns include flood risk, insurance and if the silt islands in the river may contribute towards flooding.
Then there’s the question of ownership and ecological issues when it comes to removing the silt islands.
The river burst its banks in 2015 and locals are still living in fear about what might happen in the event of another similar, or worse, flooding event.
The Western Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAM) report in 2016 outlined Westport’s Mall as being a flood risk but not sufficiently so to install flood defences in the town centre … However, it was sufficient to mean homeowners along the Mall would not be insured in the event of flood damage.
“We still don’t know who is really in charge of the Mall but if it does flood right now, there is no insurance policy for anyone living along the Mall,” said Cllr Brendan Mulroy.
It is not just homes in the Mall impacted by the CFRAM report. Its publication has also restricted several homeowners in Carrowholly from getting insurance cover in the event of flooding.

Islands in the stream
Initially installed as a resting place for ducks, the silt islands located close to Westport Credit Union on the North Mall have been the subject of considerable debate at recent council meetings.
The central fear is that they will increase the risk of flooding by virtue of being an obstacle to the flow of water down the Carrowbeg River.
“There should be no debris allowed to build up in the Mall and those islands that are in it should never have been in there and they should be taken out,” said Cllr John O’Malley. “What happens with them is every bit of debris that comes in, and there will be debris coming down from land, it will catch onto them and start building up. That’s where you have the problem. We should make sure that right from the sea all the way back to the Ballinrobe Road is clear,” he added.
At the October meeting of the Westport/Belmullet Municipal District, Inland Fisheries Ireland’s (IFI) Pádraig O’Malley said the islands may cause flooding in the town if they are not removed.
He said IFI had no preference when it came to removing the islands or leaving them in place but asked if they were being removed, that it should occur after June 1 to allow spawning to take place.
Michael O’Grady from the flood risk management of Mayo County Council said they would have no ‘particular objection’ to the removal of the islands but added he did not know if it is within their remit to order that.
There are differing issues in Westport about the silt islands. Their presence and the biodiversity they support has been previously defended in these pages by Westport Tidy Towns Biodiversity Officer Pat Fahy.
Last August Mr Fahy wrote that the banks, or ‘gravel beds’ are ‘100 percent natural: deposited by Storm Ophelia in 2017’ and that this ‘effortless work of nature has been developing ever since’.
The signage on the beds states that they and vegetation they support are ‘managed for wildlife’ with reference to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. The signage also carries the Mayo County Council logo.
However, local councillors have argued for their removal.
“To be fair with biodiversity and Westport, we all make sure everyone works really hard. If it is a case of looking for an alternative venue, we won’t be found wanting,” said Cllr Brendan Mulroy in November.
“The islands have to go … We’re spending thousands putting in flood defences in other areas of the town, so any possibility of the Mall flooding needs to be eradicated. Houses have to be protected. It’s as simple as that,” said Cllr Christy Hyland in October.

Ownership
Westport/Belmullet Municipal District engineer Tom McDonnell outlined some of the challenges with removing them.
“It is not something that’s immediately concerning regarding flooding but I wouldn’t like it to grow any bigger. IFI have made their feelings known on it but there are ecological issues. An ecological survey would have to be done because it does lead down into the SAC (Clew Bay Special Area of Conservation) and then there is the issue of ownership. The council don’t own the river. It is not an OPW channel,” he explained.
“The OPW are doing a scheme review of the CFRAM scheme for Westport town so what I will do is bring it to their attention, see what the hydrologists consider about the channel maintenance of the river through the Mall walls and down towards James Street,” he said.
Mr McDonnell said he hoped to have a response by the January meeting.
The matter came up for discussion when the council were approving a €500,000 flood defence system for the Cois Abhainn and Ashwood. Submissions made for that project included some from residents of the Mall that the flood defence might increase the flooding risk to the Mall by corralling waters downstream and rising water levels in the town centre.
However, council engineer Michael O’Grady said such risk was ‘negligible’.
But that does not mean the Mall will not flood – just that the flood defences upstream will not contribute.
“If we have a one in 100-years event, the reality is the Mall is going to be flooded and there’s no point in pretending otherwise, but the fact that this (Cois Abhainn and Ashwood flood defences) is not contributing to that is really important,” said Cllr Peter Flynn.
But the mystery remains – who is responsible for Westport’s Mall?