This account is being written in April 2012; it will (I hope) be overtaken by events, but I thought it worthwhile to record the background.
The best source of information I have found about the Royal Canal’s water supply is the set of Environmental Impact Statements [EIS] and associated documents for the Lough Ennell Abstraction scheme. They are available for download from Westmeath County Council’s website. (If there are other sources of information available, please let me know.)
What follows draws on my interpretation of what the consultants RPS said in the three volumes of the Lough Ennell Water Abstraction Supply to Royal Canal: Environmental Impact Statement (Volume 3 [EIS3] contains the technical appendices). I should warn readers that I am not an engineer and that it is entirely possible that my lack of knowledge has led me to misinterpret aspects of their reports. If that is so, I apologise to RPS and to my readers and I invite correction.
As well as reading the EIS reports, I have studied the online OSI maps for ~1840 and ~1900, visited several sites along the canal and incorporated information from several correspondents and interlocutors.
The history: before closure
I know little about the adequacy (or otherwise) of the Royal Canal’s water supply in its days of commercial carrying, In 1877 Fishbournes said
MESSRS FISHBOURNE & CO regret to inform the public that they are compelled to cease running their Steam Launches to Ballymahon, Carrick-on-Shannon, &c, in consequence of the state which the canal has been allowed to get into — choked with weeds and mud.
However, that doesn’t mean that the water level was low or the supply inadequate. I have not researched the matter, but the two main books on the Royal — Peter Clarke’s The Royal Canal: the complete story (Elo Publications, Dublin 1992) and Ruth Delany and Ian Bath Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789–2009 (Lilliput Press, Dublin 2010) — say very little about the adequacy of the supply.
As far as I can tell, there are only two non-pumped supplies to the summit level of the Royal, one at the Pig’s Nostrils east of Mullingar and the other from the Lough Owel Feeder. The first is, I believe, a flood feeder: it supplies water only when levels elsewhere are very high, so it is of little help in a drought. (If I am wrong about that, please let me know.) So, without pumping, the summit was reliant on the output of the Lough Owel feeder.
That dependence on the Lough Owel feeder may, at the least, have rendered it vulnerable in dry seasons. The second of the three volumes of the EIS, Lough Ennell Water Abstraction Supply to Royal Canal: Environmental Impact Statement Volume 2: Main Report [EIS2], says:
Historical records of daily flows to the Canal are not available, but such flows were considerably reduced after the Canal was closed to navigation in 1961.
Incidentally, the Lough Ennell Water Abstraction Supply to Royal Canal: Environmental Impact Statement Volume 1: Non Technical Summary [EIS1] is slightly misleading about this feeder:
From the time of its construction in the 1800s to the present day the Royal Canal has been supported with water from Lough Owel under the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland Acts 1877 and 1894.
In fact the feeder was in use well before those acts were passed: Ruth Delany (op cit) says that in 1801 the consultant engineer John Brownrigg recommended extending the navigation to Lough Owel; the canal reached Mullingar south of Lough Owel in 1806 and Brownrigg complained in 1809 that the feeder should have, but had not, been made navigable.
The history: after closure
In the 1840s the Midland Great Western Railway bought the Royal Canal Company and inherited its rights to the Lough Owel water. They passed with the MGWR and the canal to the Great Southern Railways Company, thence to Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) and, after several stops along the way, to Waterways Ireland.
The canal was closed in 1961 and, in 1982, Westmeath County Council sought to use water from Lough Owel to supply the Mullingar area, using its powers under the Water Supplies Act 1942. It had to negotiate with CIE, then the canal’s owner, and in 1985 CIE and the council reached an agreement:
- the council could use some of the Lough Owel water
- however, if the canal were ever reopened the council would have to provide an alternative supply of water.
There was a slight complication: the Central Fisheries Board (now Inland Fisheries Ireland) runs a fish farm that also uses water from Lough Owel; the council agreed to provide a system for returning that water to the lake.
The water supply scheme went ahead, and in 2010 a contractor was given a ten-year operation and maintenance contract, including some upgrading, for the Lough Owel water treatment plant.
In 1986 the canal was transferred from CIE to the Office of Public Works (OPW). Restoration work was already under way, led by the Royal Canal Amenity group with the cooperation of CIE and the assistance of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, but OPW gave it more resources. The canal was navigable from Dublin to Mullingar by 2000 and work was under way on the western end, thus increasing the amount of water required for navigation.
Waterways Ireland took over in that year and told Westmeath County Council that it wanted the alternative supply provided for in the 1985 agreement. Both bodies appointed engineering consultants, who independently reached the same conclusion — that Lough Ennell, to the south of Mullingar, was the “most feasible and cost effective” source — and the two bodies accepted that recommendation.
The Lough Ennell proposal
Because Lough Ennell is a relatively shallow lake, it is proposed that water be taken through a screened one-metre-diameter pipe extending some distance out from the shore and buried under the lake bed. A pump, at the north-west corner of the lake, would be housed in a new building on the site of a derelict Inland Fisheries Ireland store. The water would be pumped to a stilling chamber and discharge weir at Kilpatrick Bridge, west of Mullingar.
Because water levels would have to be monitored and managed, “flow measurement structures” would be installed on the River Brosna, which flows into and out of Lough Ennell, and on the Monaghanstown River, which joins the Brosna just south of the lake. There would also be improved controls and a fish pass at Clonsingle, where the Brosna leaves the lake.
The proponents had to take account of the Westmeath county development plan and of Lough Ennell’s designation as a High Amenity Area, a Special Protection Area, a Special Area of Conservation and a Natural Heritage Area. And because the scheme would result in a transfer of water from the Shannon River Basin District to the Eastern (in other words, water would flow down, in the canal, towards Dublin), an Environmental Impact Statement had to be prepared, as did an “Appropriate Assessment” of the “potential adverse or negative effects” on the lake as a Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation.
The project’s promoters had to consider effects, positive and negative, on people living in the area, on animals and plants ashore and in the water, on water quality, on any items of archaeological interest, on the landscape and so on. In most cases it seems that, with proper mitigation, the impacts will be pretty small.
A formal consultation process elicited comments from:
- the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, recommending that certain interests of farmers be considered. The only real impact identified was the short-term closure of a road while the pipe is laid under it
- the Geological Survey of Ireland, recommending that the effects on groundwater be considered, which they were
- the Health Service Executive, which wanted a whole lot of things considered, which they were
- the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which had some environmental worries
- Inland Fisheries Ireland http://www.fisheriesireland.ie/, Lough Ennell Trout Preservation Association and Lilliput Boat Hire http://lilliputboathire.com/, all concerned about the effects on angling (Lilliput hires out angling lake-boats amongst other types), especially of changes to water flows and levels in the lake. The IFI submission was particularly detailed.
One unusual interest that had to be considered was that of mill-owners on the Brosna downstream of Lough Ennell: they have rights to water to power their mills. These were the mills identified:
- Marshall Mill on Coola Mill, Kilbeggan
- Cooley Distilleries and Locke’s Distillery including visitor centre, Kilbeggan
- Erry Mills, Clara
- Clashawan Mill, Clara
- Belmont Mills, Ferbane.
Some are not in use but others are used for hydroelectric generation. The report [EIS1] says:
It is acknowledged that mill owners downstream will suffer some loss of generating capacity. It is proposed that the Mill Owners would be compensated for any financial losses because of any proven reduced generation capacity.
The planning process
An Bord Pleanála sets out here the categories of cases which the Board may be required to consider and determine.
No doubt it explains why the Lough Ennell proposal had to go to An Bord Pleanála. At any rate, two applications had to be made, one for the water abstraction and the other for the physical works. In practice, the two are being handled as one.
An Bord Pleanála asked Westmeath County Council for some more information; that has now been supplied and a decision is expected by 11 June 2012.
This account has not discussed the amount of water available; that will be covered on a separate page.