As regular readers will know I have been particularly exercised by some of the knee jerk reactions of both politicians and the media to last winter’s floods. There is still a chance that wholesale dredging could be back on the agenda, even though it seldom makes any difference to flood risks and can make matters worse in some catchments buy moving flood peaks more quickly down the valley. It was therefore refreshing to receive this thoughtful and well argued piece from Rod Sturdy which I felt was worthy of a wider audience.
Having read the comments made by Martin Salter (1 July 2014) and his guest blogger Charles Clover (12 February 2014) on the subjects of floods and dredging, and having read and heard so much discussion and comment on flooding in the media, it strikes me that the UK has no proper overall water policy. We have as a country been focused on either flooding or on drought as and when these events have occurred. Various ambitious schemes to move water up and down the country have at times been mooted, but nothing much has actually happened.
The weather events of recent years have in fact made the fact glaringly obvious that the UK has no joined-up water strategy. Such a strategy would of course need to be a long-term, joined-up project. It would therefore attract few votes in the way that short-term, ‘quick fix’ measures might. Nevertheless it is essential that government takes the issue seriously.
Experts are now virtually in agreement that our climate is changing. In broad terms, this means rising temperatures, greater evaporation from the earth’s surface and hence increased precipitation and more frequent flooding. It also implies more frequent and longer periods of drought.
Massive amounts of rain last winter (2013-14) produced spectacular flooding in many parts of the country. It highlighted the folly of building on or near flood plains, and also the futility of farming such areas. The long drought of 2010-12 highlighted the parlous state of the UK’s water reserves.
Recent flooding produced a knee-jerk reaction from the general public, the media and certain politicians that a return to the discredited, widespread, environmentally destructive, and extremely expensive practice of dredging of rivers was required.
Few if any commentators saw huge amounts of rain falling in a short time as in any way a blessing. Given also the likelihood of regular, more frequent droughts in a warming world, the arrival of abundant water could, and indeed should, be seen as an opportunity to hold back, store and use what is by any standards a precious resource.
As things stand, vast quantities of water are channelled directly into streams and rivers, and directed into the sea in short order. The idea that this already artificially accelerated draining process should be further speeded up seems nonsensical when seen in context.
In current practice, water companies abstract water from rivers and sell it to the domestic, industrial and agricultural consumer. Many, if not most, UK rivers are now over-abstracted, and a crisis point has been reached. There are many anomalies in the system as it stands. Water companies can for example demand compensation from government if they agree not to abstract water from chalk streams (which needs very little processing to be fit for drinking), on the grounds that they will need to spend more on processing the water they abstract elsewhere. Many abstraction licences are no longer realistic given a diminished resource and are badly in need of overhaul.
Few politicians appear to understand the need for more rational water management. The recent pronouncement by the current Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, that ‘the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water’ is as nonsensical, when seen in proper context, as it is frightening. Caroline Spellman’s frank confession on air during the 2010-12 drought that there was no drought plan, let alone a long-term drought strategy, was as depressing as it was disarming. Nothing has really changed much, it seems, since the 1976 ‘drought minister’, Denis Howell, rather limply urged us to ‘save water – bath with a friend’.
The aims of an effective water strategy should be (a) to ensure adequate water for industrial, agricultural and domestic use, (b) to protect the environment, and (c) to manage the effects of flooding and drought. I believe that these aims are achievable without great expense or the need for costly, grandiose solutions.
It is vital that future governments:
- Encourage the development of simple, inexpensive means of storage of rainwater for agricultural and domestic use.
- Introduce universal domestic water metering of utility water, and encourage the population in more disciplined, enlightened and effective use of water
- Ensure that concreted areas in new developments are made porous, and make retro-adaptation of existing areas of concrete mandatory
- Encourage the ending of farming practices which cause the ingress of soil and silt into rivers and other watercourses
- Encourage the suitable planting of trees in upland areas by watercourses in order to slow down the progress of surface water
- Encourage schemes which re-connect rivers with their flood plains
- Impose an effective ban on flood plain development, and assist existing inhabitants of flood-prone areas to relocate
Simple, cheap and effective rainwater collection methods are already in use in parts of the developing world. There is no reason for the developed world not to make use of them. Water so collected can be used for domestic washing and garden irrigation, the latter being an activity which places heavy demands on utility water supplies.
These simple methods will help to obviate the need for such labour- and cost intensive schemes as pipelining water over great distances, and also the building of dams and reservoirs: such schemes are of course hugely expensive and themselves likely to trigger further environmental problems. Large reservoirs involve an immense volume and surface area of water which will inevitably add to evaporation in a warming climate, involving the escape of huge amounts of water into an atmosphere already laden with moisture.
The issue of ground water is one which is equally important as visible water at the surface. Areas which are concreted over and hence made impervious should contain enough sink-holes at regular intervals in order to channel rainwater into the soil and hence the water table, such that built-up areas behave as nearly as possible like open land. Existing areas of concrete tend to cause rainwater to run off in a sudden surge into the nearest watercourses, causing flash flooding.
The farming lobby has over past decades worked to make sure that arable land has been drained to allow crops to be grown. Rivers and other watercourses have been treated as little more than drainage ditches to carry away unwanted water. Farming practices which involve the compacting of soil by heavy machinery have caused surface water, along with large quantities of silt to run off directly into rivers. In order to correct this situation, government should incentivise farming methods which allow water to find its way downwards into the soil, rather than being channelled sideways into the nearest watercourse, thus replenishing groundwater levels.
Wherever possible, the aim should be to reconnect rivers with their floodplains. A functioning floodplain is an effective means of storing and moving floodwater. It will counteract the tendency of dredged, canalised rivers which are disconnected from their flood plains to transport huge amounts of floodwater within a very short time, often causing devastation in downstream urban areas. A flood plain will also allow groundwater – also an important source of water for human needs – to replenish, and also give greater biodiversity, although farming will need to adapt to new circumstances.
The flooding the UK experienced last winter highlighted the plight, in human terms, of those living in flood-prone areas, with a specific concentration by the media and politicians on the Somerset Levels.
Whilst we naturally think of the problems of those striving to exist on flood plains with sympathy, there is in the long term no realistic option for those people but to move away. Indeed, it would be better if they were helped to do so sooner rather than later. No amount of dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels will alter the fact that the area is below sea level, floods virtually every winter, and is a hostile environment for traditional forms of agriculture.
Idyllic as a home close by the lower Thames may seem, the fact needs to be faced that flooding there will become an increasingly regular occurrence. A future government should strongly consider withdrawing the current guarantee of insurance cover for buildings sited in flood-prone areas, thus removing what has effectively been the subsidising of flood plain development. This will clearly not win many votes in the short term. This does not change the need for policy changes, however.
As for new housing, it is imperative that new developments on flood plains are subject to a total ban. As things stand, the Environment Agency has advisory powers only, and is frequently overruled when it attempts to prevent such developments.
On a broader front, politicians will eventually have to accept, as will everyone, that climate change will increasingly set limits to human habitation, activity and numbers.
Rod began fishing in his local park lake at the age of twelve, and from there he graduated to chub and roach from the river Tees in North Yorkshire. He now lives in Surrey within striking distance of the river Mole, as well as the Medway and the Eden in Kent and does a lot of surface carp fishing on small waters in the area. Latterly he has enjoyed winter fishing on the Test in Hampshire.
He has contributed numerous articles on various angling subjects and personalities to ‘Waterlog’ magazine and remains a passionate angler as well as a member, volunteer and promoter of the Angling Trust.