An Irish Lake Shrinks In Bureaucratic Mixup

Drain a large lake in America, and you'd likely be taken to court. But when half of scenic Glen Lake in the Irish midlands was drained to open up farmland, there was only bureaucratic embarrassment.

Glen Lake is described in the region's tourism booklet as "an underdeveloped jewel." The lake is one of the prime winter roosting places in Europe for rare Whooper swans and a favored habitat for other birds such as the lapwing and golden plover.

However, plans to exploit the tourist potential of the 125-acre area are on hold, after much of the lake vanished in September.

Local people initially put out a "missing lake" appeal, only to discover that the disappearance was the result of a communications breakdown between two government agencies.

The member of Parliament for the area, Willie Penrose, says "people are furious with the incompetence displayed. We were actually attempting to increase the size of the lake, not drain it away." For the past five years, the National Wildlife Service has been working to protect the lake, which straddles the borders of Westmeath and Longford Counties. In 1994, the service got the European Union (EU) to designate the lake as a special conservation site.

When the lake overflowed into surrounding farmland each winter, the EU compensated farmers who did not drain off the floodwater. Local journalist Barry Flynn says that in the area, "they say the Glen Lake farmers are 'on the REPS' - the name given to the EU-funded Rural Environmental Protection Scheme."

The plan also provides money for farmers to fence off Glen Lake waterways and encourages practices to reduce pollution in the area, including methods for the disposal of animal waste.

The policy was very different 30 years ago, when the Office of Public Works (OPW) was in charge of Glen Lake. It put in a drainage plan to try to increase the amount of dry land for farmers to use. Every few years, the OPW has upgraded this effort, in the process reducing the lake's water level.

Mr. Flynn says this year, "the trouble was nobody seems to have told the OPW about the new environmental status of Glen Lake, so they simply moved in as normal and drained off half the water."

Environmentalists are furious. Jackie Hunt of Birdwatch Ireland says, "The primary objective was to conserve the lake's special status for wildlife. To drain this wetland area is completely contrary to any hope of protecting it for the birds."

The lower water level has already destroyed much of the flora along the edge of the lake, and Ms. Hunt claims the number of wintering birds there has fallen dramatically. Birdwatch, which counted 450 Whooper swans on the lake last December, says that number is now down by 80 percent.

Local people hoped to develop outdoor leisure facilities on the lake. Talks had taken place with another government agency, the Tourism Board, about securing funding. John Rodgers of the Rathowen Community Development Association says that now, "the original money to develop 'hides' for birdwatchers and lakeside walks for other tourists will probably be spent undoing the damage done by the OPW."

A clearly embarrassed OPW has said very little. A spokesman says it was "merely undertaking routine work" on the lake but will pick up the tab for any restoration work that is needed. Mr. Penrose, the politician, says the OPW should have consulted locally before starting this work.

He adds, "Next time we hope they'll pick up the phone."

That they probably will, not least because the lack of consultation last September could, according to Birdwatch Ireland, produce a restoration bill of $1.5 million.

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