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Cork on the Rise: Flood-defence scheme process as long and winding as the River Lee

Extensive flooding at the Lee Fields and Carrigrohane Road in 2009

Save Cork City offers an alternative plan to protect Cork’s heritage, writes Eoin English

The mammoth process of designing a flood-defence scheme for Ireland’s second city has been as long and winding as the River Lee itself. With a long history of river flooding in the Lee Valley and of tidal flooding in Cork’s historic city island area, the need for flood defences was thrown into sharp focus almost a decade ago when vast swathes of the city core were swamped without warning by a devastating river flood which caused an estimated €90m in damage.

Tidal floods in 2014 and in the winter of 2015/2016 caused another €50m in damage.

Despite floods becoming more frequent and more severe, and the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels a clear and present danger, the battle over how to save Cork from drowning rages on.

Flooding in Cork is not a simple problem. There is not a simple solution.

The lengthy process to design the city’s contentious €140m flood-defence scheme — the largest single investment in flood defences in the history of the State — has been marked by claims and counter-claims, consultation and controversy, public competitions and public protests, a High Court legal challenge and even suggestions of “fake news”.

Flooding on LAvitt's Quay in 1953

And with a decision from Bórd Pleanála due within months on the vital first phase of the scheme — the blending of flood defences into a public realm upgrade on Morrison’s Island which will eliminate 70% to 80% of tidal flooding risk in the city centre — those driving the project are gearing up for a PR battle in a bid to win the hearts and minds of citizens that the current approach is in the city’s best interests.

The origins of the flood-defence project can be traced to 2006 when the Office of Public Work (OPW) appointed engineers to assess the flood risk across the entire river Lee catchment.

This project, the Lee Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management (CFRAMS), was ongoing when the 2009 flood struck. The causes and factors involved in that devastating flood resulted in a new approach to flood-risk management on the Lee, with CFRAMS proposing a combination of flood forecasting and warning, revised dam-operating procedures, and raised riverside defences in places.

From this study flowed the €140m Cork City flood-defence scheme, known in the official documents as the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme, which will run from the Inniscarra dam west of the city right into the city centre. Early proposals began to emerge around 2013.

Engineers kept and tweaked some of the CFRAM proposals but added a flow-modification structure, a mini-barrier near the Kingsley Hotel, to control water flow into the river’s south channel during extreme rainfall or flood events.

Flooding on Oliver Plunkett Street in 2001

The scheme is designed to protect over 2,100 properties, including 900 houses and 1,200 businesses, against tidal and river flooding.

A decision was taken later to deliver the first phase of its flood defences — the Morrison’s Island project — under a separate Part 8 planning process to be advanced by Cork City Council.

However, opponents seized on the early artistic renderings of the overall project, branding it a “walls scheme” and voicing concerns about its impact on the city’s heritage.

They called for a radically different approach to include a tidal barrier in Cork Harbour combined with natural flood- management measures upstream.

From this collection of architects, engineers, academics, solicitors and artists grew the Save Cork City campaign group which has become a real thorn in the side of the OPW and the council.

Its leading figures have addressed an Oireachtas committee and organised an international design competition to showcase possible alternatives.

They hired UK-based engineers to examine the OPW’s proposals and to cost their tidal barrier alternative, and they invited Dutch-based flooding experts to critique the Cork plan.

Despite some of their early claims which could be argued were somewhat misleading, they went on to raise important questions about the overall approach of the OPW and their consultants, about the level and quality of public consultation, and about the state’s long-term approach to managing flood risk.

Despite mounting criticism of the overall approach to the wider flood-defence scheme, city councillors voted last May to approve the Part 8 planning for the Morrison’s Island phase.

Save Cork City sought and was granted a judicial review of that decision claiming there were fatal flaws in the environment screening processes attached to the Part 8.

Flooding on the South Mall in 2014

The group struck a blow last October when the High Court granted an order quashing the planning.

The agreement between Save Cork City and the council was reached on the basis that the council failed to comply with its obligations under the EU Habitats Directive 1992 in relation to its Part 8 planning for the scheme in May.

The council said that when Part 8 was voted on, it was in full compliance with all existing and established processes and procedures, and in line with the established interpretation of the law at the centre of the EU court ruling which came a month later.

However, the council said its agreement to the High Court order followed a subsequent European Court of Justice ruling on a windfarm case which overturned established practice in Ireland and the rest of Europe over environmental screening on similar projects. The council was also ordered to pay the legal costs.

The court decision meant the council had to advance the Morrison’s Island plan under a Part 10 process through Bórd Pleanála. That process was underway by December.

The OPW has repeatedly defended the wider Cork flood- defence plan, pointing to its track record of delivering flood- defence schemes elsewhere.

It has rejected its description as a “walls scheme” pointing out that it is a blend of measures including:

  • A detailed flood-forecasting system involving the installation, maintenance and real-time monitoring of a suite of gauges and sensors, recording rainfall and river levels in the Lee catchment area;
  • Revised dam-operating procedures for extreme flood events, involving the Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid dams, and significant interaction with the ESB as operators of the dams;
  • Designation of upstream washlands in the floodplain to facilitate greater advance discharges from the dams;
  • A flow-regulation structure on the south channel of the Lee to reduce flow in its south channel during extreme rainfall events, critical to reducing the need for direct defences in the fluvially-influenced zone of this river channel;
  • Direct defences in some places along the north and south channel, comprising embankments, railings, ground-level changes, and in some locations 1.2m-high walls — which is only just above waist height on most people.

It says a range of alternatives were considered over the last 11 years, including raising the dams and building a tidal barrier, but that each were ruled out on technical, cost or environmental grounds, and that the current approach is the only viable and cost-effective option.

It has tried to reassure opponents about its plans for a network of pumping stations, which it says will be designed with appropriate redundancies, standby pumps and backup generators.

It says consideration for Cork’s cultural heritage has been at the forefront of the design process and that the design is adaptable to provide greater protection in response to climate change.

It also says most of the defence walls where required will be no higher than knee-height, that €20m is being invested in the repair of historic quay walls which could otherwise be at serious risk of collapse, and that the entire scheme will deliver almost 1km of new river walkway.

And it says it has listened to feedback from the public and been opened to design changes.

This was proven last December when consultants working on the project briefed city councillors on a raft of design changes, including plans to use demountable barriers in historically sensitive city-centre areas and a significant new approach to managing flood risk at the Lee Fields.

It is now proposed to use demountable defences at the Grand Parade, and along North Mall and Sullivan’s Quay, where railings and trees will also be retained.

There are proposals to create a tree-lined cycle and walking boulevard along the Lee Fields, where a new park, with a raised bund, will be designed to enhance access to the river via an upgraded Lee Fields slipway, and to create wetlands and promote biodiversity.

There are plans to integrate flood defences into a new plaza alongside the Shakey Bridge, to create a new plaza at Grenville Place, and to future-proof all the designs to ensure connected walking and cycling routes from the Lee Fields can be provided in future.

Opponents have dismissed this as “window dressing”.

A decision from Bórd Pleanála on the Morrison’s Island phase is due in June. The rest of the flood-defence scheme is being advanced under the Arterial Drainage Acts, which will require ministerial approval.

It will be delivered in phases and take several years to complete.

Flood defence timeline

2006

The OPW embarks on a massive catchment-wide flood risk and management study of the entire River Lee called CFRAMS. The process included 11 public information days.

2009

November: As CFRAMS work continues, Cork City is swamped by a devastating river flood. An estimated €90m worth of damage is caused.

2010

CFRAMS publishes a draft flood plan for public consultation which identifies the preferred approach to flood risk management.

2013

Before the final CFRAMS report is published, a design team is appointed to start work on the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme (Lower Lee FRS) — the Cork City flood defence scheme running from Ballincollig to the city. The OPW hosts the first public information day on the emerging plans, which at this stage include flood defence works in Blackpool and Ballyvolane.

2014

February: The city centre is inundated by a significant tidal flood, causing an estimated €40m worth of damage. The final CFRAMS plans are published as the OPW hosts the second public information day on the emerging Cork flood defence scheme.

2016

Design proposals for the emerging scheme go on public display. Amid concerns about its reliance on raised quay walls, the campaign group, Save Cork City, emerges and begins campaigning for a tidal barrage in the lower harbour. Over 1,100 submissions from the public are received.

2017

February: The OPW responds to mounting criticism to insist its scheme is the only viable way to minimise tidal and fluvial flood risk in Cork City.

March: OPW briefs Cork Chamber, Cork Business Association and the then Lord Mayor on the scheme.

October: OPW and Save Cork City address the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Culture, Heritage and Gaelteacht.

November/December: OPW briefs Cork City Council. It’s decided to decouple flood defence works around Morrison’s Island and deliver them separately as part of a public realm upgrade led by Cork City Council. Save Cork City holds an international design competition inviting alternative proposals for the quay.

2018

February: The OPW/council plans for Morrison’s Island are published for public consultation as part of a Part 8 planning process. A life-sized replica quay-wall section is built in City Hall so people can view the proposals. Over 1,000 submissions are made.

May: City councillors vote to approve the Part 8 — effectively granting planning permission.

July: Save Cork City campaigners mount legal challenge.

October: In the High Court, the council agrees to abandon the Part 8 process and advance the scheme using a Part 10 process through An Bord Pleanála in the wake of a European Court ruling on the potential impact of such works on protected habitats.

December: The council seeks Bord Pleanála approval for the Morrison’s Island scheme. A decision is due by June.

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