You don’t have to have spent half a lifetime as an angler, boater or wildfowl enthusiast to have a basic understanding of how river catchments work and what makes flooding more or less likely – but it helps. As the flooding crisis has unfolded, the lack of science and evidence in the public debate on these issues has become more and more apparent. In particular, claims that the widespread use of dredging can act as a flood prevention measure are not only unsupported by science and evidence, they can seem like an offer of false hope to those living in flood prone communities. Whilst addressing the immediate needs of communities must of course take priority at the moment, anglers in particular are concerned that politicians could be about to take us back to the 1960’s and 70’s and turn many rivers into straightened flood channels in order to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Never mind that the evidence shows that we should be holding water back for as long as possible at the top of the catchments, ending damaging farming practices and protecting the floodplains from development. Reclaimed marshland apart, the studies show that in many cases dredging can actually make flooding worse by moving the waters down too quickly and heightening the flood peaks in vulnerable, downstream areas.
All this is before we even begin to consider the ecological and environmental damage that dredging can do. Anglers know this but do our politicians?
That’s why the Angling Trust is working hard with other organisations to try and get some good, old fashioned evidence back into the public debate on what to do about flooding in the context of a changing climate. We are pleased to publish here a serious and considered contribution by Charles Clover, author of End of the Line, keen fisherman and a respected environmental commentator.
LET’S NOT UNLEARN THE LESSONS ABOUT DREDGING
Charles Clover, a keen fisherman, is Executive chairman of Blue Marine Foundation – a charity dedicated to marine reserves, also an author, a columnist The Sunday Times and the former Environment Editor at The Daily Telegraph.
People who work in flood defence dread the moment when the debate gets dirty and personal, when the floodwaters rise and the complaints and name-calling begins. That is the moment when years of meticulous planning to protect lives and property are tested and sometimes found wanting. It happened in East Yorkshire and in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, in 2007 and in Cockermouth, Cumbria in 2009. In December 2013, after a summer of rain, it happened for the third time in 14 months in the Somerset Levels and Moors.
As 2014’s third wettest January on record turned to a wet February and some 62 square kilometres of the Levels were still under floodwater and likely to remain so for weeks, recriminations began. Strident voices challenged not only the management of the Levels by the Environment Agency and others, but the management of rivers all over Britain. The old 1960s cry of “dredge,” became the rallying call and the chant of landowners again.
When Lord Smith, the Environment Agency’s chairman, dared utter the obvious truth that Treasury spending rules limit the amount that can be spent on flood defence in sparsely populated countryside compared with heavily populated areas, his comments were received with outrage by the president of the Country Landowners’ Association, Henry Robinson. Robinson retorted “we simply cannot carry on like this” and called for the government to deregulate dredging for landowners everywhere.
Would defending farmland from flooding again be a good thing, or even possible, on the Somerset Levels or elsewhere? That is what we need to ask before the emotions of the sodden winter of 2014 lead us to unlearn lessons acquired over many decades. We now know that it is better in most circumstances to slow water down, to allow the upper reaches and the water meadows to flood naturally, as they have always done, instead of forcing water downstream to flood someone else and at considerable cost to the ecology of the river.
The Somerset Levels are a special case. Historically a swamp, where King Alfred hid from the Danes, the Levels have always been wet. Farmers there resisted drainage long after Cornelius Vermuyden drained the Fens. So the Levels and Moors were never engineered as much. There isn’t anywhere like the Hundred Food Washes for the water to go – so it spills onto farmland. There is enormous sympathy for the 40 homeowners around villages such as Muchelney that have been flooded but figuring out what to do about it remains a conundrum. Dredging the rivers Parrett, Brue and Axe, which are above the level of the land, could increase their capacity to take floodwater but even the local drainage boards don’t think that dredging will provide the long term solution that the Prime Minister appears to believe it will. The drainage boards’ ten point plan also recommends storing more water in upper catchments, relocating vulnerable households, and providing support for farmers whose land is used as storage areas for water. New evidence on the amount of silt caused by growing maize in the upper catchment indicates that as much work needs to be done on land management issues there as on the rivers that drain the Levels and Moors.
Why should we now have to contemplate dredging in rivers across the rest of the country, when expert opinion says it is only a partial solution for an engineered wetland? Will there really be benefits for flood defence or will it just make flooding worse? We need evidence on where dredging is appropriate, if at all. We will need to look very carefully at the conclusions of the seven pilot studies sanctioned by Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, in which farmers will be allowed to dredge rivers [delete: all over the country]. My feeling is that the experience of the past 50 years will be shown to be true, that channels dredged will never be enough to hold the results of a true downpour, while immense ecological damage will be done and floodwater simply moved down to the nearest town. That, unless we resist, could be the expensive legacy of this wet winter long after the strident voices have ceased.