Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Fermanagh: Where has all the water gone?

The Share Holiday Village sign almost totally submerged in November last year (left) but well above the waterline yesterday (right). Many water-based activities at Share have been curtailed due to the conditions

Six months ago Fermanagh was swept with severe winter floods leaving families stranded and farm animals in peril.

Now the county is facing the opposite problem — a region that is a byword for rain is heading into drought and Lough Erne’s water levels have plummeted dangerously low.

Water levels have dropped so low that even expert boatsmen are struggling to navigate many of the waterways in Upper Lough Erne, the stretch that leads into the Shannon-Erne waterway which connects Lough Erne to the Republic’s waterway system.

Yesterday Share Holiday Village reported that many of its water-based activities have been curtailed due to the low water conditions and strong weed growth.

“Dinghy sailing and keelboat sailing are proving quite difficult because of the weed growth. The water sports centre is kind of like a ski centre without any snow,” spokesman Rory Martin said.

“If the water level continues to drop, it looks like we might be high and dry.

“It’s hard to judge.”

Lake levels are the lowest they have been for the last 15 years, estimates Ian Leinster of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland.

“It’s as low as I’ve seen it for a long, long time — 1995 was the last time we were getting as worried about the lake,” he said.

Peter Scott, who has spent years boating on the lough, said he was having to constantly take depth soundings when he was acting as pathfinder for a recent swimming challenge.

“We had to reroute part of it because we couldn’t get through the proposed route,” he said.

Mr Scott said one way to deal with the levels might be to drop the gate at Portora to prevent water draining from the Upper to the Lower lake.

Another would be for ESB to adjust the rate that water goes through the hydro-electric turbines at Ballyshannon.

The level of the lake is very close to the legal minimum required, he said.

However, Waterways Ireland northern manager Joe Gillespie said the level of the Upper Lough is 140mm above the statutory minimum level.

“The navigation is lower than people want but there are still a lot of people there enjoying themselves,” he said.

“We're about to have Loughfest this weekend and there are a lot of vessels passing up and down. If you have a very deep draft vessel you may have difficulties.”

A DARD spokesperson said: “Rivers Agency and the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) are closely monitoring water levels in the Lough Erne system.

“In the event of no significant rainfall in the next few days we may need to close the sluice gates at Portora to maintain water levels above the statutory minimum in the Upper Lough.”

Background

The floods that hit Co Fermanagh in November last year were the highest since records began in 1956, leaving families across a wide stretch of the county cut off. Now, water levels have dropped unusually low, making it difficult to navigate, particularly in the upper lough.

Water levels are now 140mm above the statutory minimum — they can be controlled either by bringing the sluice gates at Portora into play or by adjusting the amount of water carried through the ESB hydro-electric station at Ballyshannon.

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