As Irish and European society continues to re-assess its attitude to land use and farming, the role of the Office of Public Works (OPW) is coming under the spotlight.

The OPW in many non-farming minds is more closely linked with high-quality restoration and refurbishment work in historic buildings and gardens, such as Kilkenny Castle, Rock of Cashel, etc.

But they also play a significant role in the drainage of rivers, with the objective of improving the livelihoods of farmers across the individual catchment area.

Drainage Act

When arterial drainage work has been carried out under the 1945 Arterial Drainage Act, there is an obligation on the OPW to maintain the system.

An interesting case is now under the spotlight in Kerry, with the Feale River in the Cashen area, which drains into the Shannon Estuary. This inherently highly productive – though flood-prone – area was first drained with a series of sluices and embankments in the mid to late 1800s.

In 1957, the OPW carried out a major revamp of the scheme, which hugely improved the livelihoods of farming families on about 25,000 acres.

The lower 10,000 acres now needs a serious programme of renewed maintenance and upgrading to meet modern needs.

The OPW has, to its credit, proposed a refurbishment of embankments and the installation of pumps, some electric and some wind, to better control the level of the water, especially during the grazing season.

Calls for Act to be 'reformed or repealed'

All of this makes absolute sense, but what is disturbing is that there are now calls for the Arterial Drainage Act to be drastically reformed or repealed to allow highly productive land to be flooded and the drainage systems to be abandoned along with farmer livelihoods.

Nobody has made any accusations of pollution from the reclaimed land, but the actual principle of effective arterial drainage is being challenged.

It is a challenge which should be resisted in the interests of both Irish farming and food production in an increasingly uncertain world.