Cost of Athlone flood defences rises by almost €4m

The cost of the ongoing work to install flood defences in eight areas of Athlone town rose by almost €4 million last year, according to a recent report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG).

When the plans for the flood defences first emerged in 2016 it was billed as a €6 million scheme, but the C&AG's Appropriation Accounts report has now indicated the total anticipated spend would be well over twice that amount, at €14.6 million.

The report said the expected cost of the project rose by €3.86 million between 2019 and 2020, and that this increase was caused by the "inclusion of additional works not anticipated in the original design."

It added that "enhancements to the original design" of the scheme had also been made, "including cladding and paving works, and the widening of embankments to facilitate a future cycleway."

The news of the costs hike came as Athlone-area councillors were given an update, at their October monthly meeting, on the status of the flood works in what were regarded as the eight most at-risk areas of town.

Westmeath County Council Director of Services Barry Kehoe indicated that, of the eight areas where flood defences were being installed, just two (Iona Park and Brick Island) were fully complete.

The flood defences were "95% complete" at Marine View, and "85% complete" at The Quay and Deerpark, the latter of which was described by Mr Kehoe as the "most extensive" section, requiring embankments, walls, and "a new structure at McQuid's Bridge" on Deerpark Road.

In July, the Westmeath Independent reported that a legal dispute before the High Court had resulted in flood defence works being stopped in the vicinity of the Bastion Quay apartment complex on the western bank of the Shannon.

The stoppage of this work related to High Court proceedings that were initiated against the council by a landowner in the area, Westshore Developments Limited.

During Mr Kehoe's update on the flood defences at this week's meeting of the Athlone Moate Municipal District, he said there were "issues with one stakeholder to be resolved" in respect of the Deerpark section of the flood works.

He also said there were also "issues with one stakeholder to be resolved" in respect of the Golden Island section of the flood defences, which were still at the "detailed design" stage.

The flood works at The Strand, which started in mid-2019, were "70% complete," councillors were told, with this work involving service diversions and coordination with the planned Athlone Main Drainage Project.

The final section of the flood defences, at River Al, close to Willow Park, is furthest from completion as it requires an environmental assessment report, which is currently being prepared for An Bord Pleanála.

Mr Kehoe said the flood gates installed in the various flood defence areas would generally be left open, to facilitate public access to the river, unless water levels rose to the extent that they needed to be closed. He also said an "integrated pumping system" had been built into certain parts of the scheme.

The council has been working on the flood defence project in partnership with the Office of Public Works, and Mr Kehoe praised the OPW's "excellent commitment" to it. He said it was anticipated that work in all eight of the targeted areas would be completed by the end of 2022.

In response to a question from Cllr Frankie Keena, the Westmeath County Council official said he believed the works undertaken so far would prevent the town from flooding if there was an extreme weather event this coming winter.

"We are confident that we can defend the town. The defences are largely in place now," said Mr Kehoe.

"In February 2020, we had significant flooding on Shannon, the river came up very high, but in fairness the defences that were constructed at that stage did perform the function they were designed to perform.

"The District Engineer filled in all the gaps, so to speak, and all of the weaknesses, so that was a successful flood defence from the council's perspective and we would be confident that would be repeated in the coming winter. There has been significant progress since then."

In response to a question from Cllr Louise Heavin about trees that were removed in the town as part of the flood defence work, he said these would be replaced when the construction work was finished.

"We will be putting in way more trees than we had to take out, and they will be appropriate trees, as well, for an urban area," he said.