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Dredging isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ to solve the winter flooding crisis. It can actually make downstream flooding worse, is usually bad news for the environment and would have delivered a staggering extra 550 million gallons of floodwater a day into the flood hit communities of the Lower Thames.
That was the stark message taken to Parliament yesterday by Angling Trust Campaigns Chief Martin Salter on behalf of the Blueprint for Water coalition.
The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee held a special hearing on the flooding which has rocked parts of Britain this winter.
The RSPB’s Rob Cunningham and the Angling Trust’s Martin Salter answered questions from the committee on behalf of the Blueprint for Water coalition. They emphasised how land management practices, such as farming, should be modified to reduce the run off of soil and water and how floodwater needs to be better stored higher up the catchment to reduce the risk of flooding further downstream.
The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management’s (CIWEM) Martin Whiting also gave evidence, providing a technical assessment of where and how dredging may be one component of a package of measures, while emphasising the need to improve management of water on a whole catchment basis.
On 14 February, CIWEM published a report, endorsed by the Blueprint for Water coalition. The report - Floods and Dredging, a Reality Check - suggested solely relying on dredging can even make some communities more vulnerable to the risk of flooding.
The report calls for leadership from the government in promoting sustainable measures across whole catchments to minimise flood risks, rather than politically-motivated, knee-jerk reactions. It also warns against using the artificially reclaimed landscape on the Somerset Levels, which requires regular dredging, as a template for the management of the natural rivers of Britain.
Martin Salter told the committee:
“Wholesale dredging for flood risk management, rather than for navigation, stopped on the Thames in the early 1980s because the key engineers concluded it was a complete waste of time and money. They discovered that the river bed has barely changed over centuries, exemplified by the fact that they were pulling out Bronze Age remains in the dredging buckets when they dug into hard bed. Like many rivers the Thames is by and large self scouring and an extreme flood event will move more silt than the dredgers ever can.
Furthermore, estimates from the Environment Agency’s Flood Risk Management team revealed that had the upper and middle Thames and its tributaries been subject to the wholesale dredging some have called for, there would have been at least a 10% increase in floodwater hitting the Lower Thames communities around Old Windsor, Wraysbury and Staines where I grew up. This equates to an extra 550 million gallons of floodwater a day at the peak of the flood delivering a minimum of 6 inches to a foot more flooding to already hard hit communities.”
Mr Salter added:
“Politicians need to stop looking for quick fix solutions and recognise that extreme weather will create more flooding and that this will require a stronger, not weaker Environment Agency, more restrictions on building on the floodplain and real incentives to improve upland farming practices to slow down the flow of water throughout the catchment.”
Mr Salter described the recent attacks on the Environment Agency by government ministers as "a low point in British politics. "
The CIWEM report can be viewed here.
The Angling Trust is following up on the publication of a major report on dredging by the Chartered Institution for Water and Environmental Management (note 1) this week by calling on the government to focus on land management, rather than dredging rivers and building yet more flood defences. Research clearly shows that changes in land use reduce run-off and increase infiltration, which reduces the height of flood peaks, and reduces the amount of sediment washing into rivers.
One recent study by the highly respected Centre for Ecology and Hydrology demonstrates that that planting forests can increase the rate that water soaks into the ground by more than 1000% (see note 2). Another study by Newcastle University found that construction of low cost, artificial ponds could capture so much water in a catchment in the North East that the flood peak in a town downstream could be reduced by 30% (see note 3).
These techniques are much more effective, cheaper and more sustainable than dredging and flood defences. What’s more, they allow water to fill up aquifers which keep rivers flowing during the summer months and have numerous environmental benefits because they reduce the quantity of silt, pesticides, slurry, fertilisers and urban pollution being washed into rivers and at the same time create valuable wildlife habitats.
Calls for dredging have come from the farming lobby, but a 2009 Defra report in support of its Soil Strategy for England found that agriculture is responsible for 75% of the sediment in rivers (note 4). A Countryside Council for Wales report in 2009 (see note 5) found that 14 tonnes of sediment a year per hectare were being washed off an agricultural catchment in Wales, leading to a quadrupling in the rate that sediment is being deposited in Llangorse lake since the 1970s. An Environment Agency report in 2010 found that large scale changes in agricultural land management, especially in the uplands have the potential to decrease river flows in the River Calder by 25% (see note 6). Tackling run-off from farmland would therefore not only reduce flooding, but it would reduce the amount of silt getting into rivers in the first place.
As long ago as 2006, several environmental and angling organisations drew up a Blueprint for Water setting out a wide range of actions that government should take to take an integrated approach to sustainable water management. In spite of repeated reminders over the past 8 years, which have included severe droughts and highly damaging floods, little action has been taken. We hope that the current floods will finally get the government to implement the Blueprint which included measures to reduce the speed and quantity of water running off agricultural land and urban areas.
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust said: “For too many years farmers have been encouraged to focus on production at the expense of their own soils. Crops like potatoes and maize can have disastrous consequences when grown in the wrong place, because they lead to rapid run-off of water and soil. In towns, far too many developments are being built without sustainable urban drainage systems in them. As a result, people’s homes and businesses are being flooded and our rivers are being polluted with torrents of sediment and other pollutants. Widespread dredging of rivers would have made little or no difference to the impact of this year’s floods, but integrated catchment management might well have saved thousands of people from a heap of misery. We need to deal with the causes of flooding, rather than the effects.”
The Angling Trust has joined forces with environmental campaigners to warn that government policies are likely to make flood damage more likely and limit the ability of the Environment Agency to offer help, warning and support to flood-hit communities.
Both the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary have claimed that flood defence work was being protected from planned cuts but it is now clear this is not the case. It has just been announced that some 90 lock and weir keeper posts on the River Thames alone now face the axe. These staff play a crucial role in regulating flows during flood events.
Many of the 1,700 EA staff whose jobs are set to disappear in the next year are either working directly in flood defence, or have been seconded in from other parts of the Agency such as Fisheries, Planning, Waste Control or Mapping during the recent floods to help out. If their jobs are cut, there will be fewer staff to provide back up in future floods and other functions – such as pollution prevention and enforcement – will struggle to deliver their statutory duties effectively.
Furthermore, attempts by the government to deregulate dredging in water meadows, vital for storing flood water, could contribute to an increase in flood risk further downstream by creating higher flood peaks. The Environment Agency has also warned against increasing dredging in the floodplain with a study published last year which concluded that far from reducing flood risk dredging can "speed up flows and potentially increase the risk of flooding downstream."
Finally, the Trust has reacted with alarm to reports that the coalition is preparing to mount a fresh assault on planning laws by giving developers the power to push though applications without the need for council approval or environmental assessments, including the requirements to incorporate flood defences and to protect important water meadows.
Reading in Berkshire, home of Angling Trust campaigns chief Martin Salter and where he served as a local MP, is one Thames Valley town that escaped the worst of the floods despite being located on the junction of the Thames and the Kennet. Mr Salter joined up with some of the campaigners who worked with him and defeated plans to build on Kennet water meadows over the last three decades to repeat the message that the Kennet flood plain must be protected at all costs along with functional water meadows everywhere. There is renewed developer interest in building on the floodplain as the housing market begins to recover which will be further fuelled by any government relaxation in the planning process.
Martin Salter said: "Rather than paddling around in the floodplain crying crocodile tears for the victims of the floods, politicians of all parties should start unwinding policies and plans that will make a bad situation many times worse. It is crassly irresponsible to be axing any posts in the already over-stretched Environment Agency when we know climate change is going to make extreme flood events more, not less likely. Relaxing planning consents and deregulating dredging on the floodplain is downright stupid and flies in the face of evidence and advice from the government's own experts and advisors. And to be even considering removing lock and weir keepers from the Thames while it is a lethal mass of swirling floodwater will appear incomprehensible to everyone who knows what a vital job these guys do in looking after the river and helping keep people safe."
He added: "As anglers we know how dangerous rivers can be and how important it is to avoid situations where water is running off the floodplain and into already overloaded river channels. We can't dredge our way out of flooding but we can call a halt to policies that prevent the water meadows from doing their job and operating as natural reservoirs. Functioning water meadows are good for the environment, good for fish and wildlife and are the best flood defences we can have."
Alex Salmond urged to get a grip on wild salmon policy.
The representative body for all anglers, the Angling Trust, has called on Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to get a grip on policy concerning Atlantic salmon following a string of decisions in Scotland which all threaten to damage wild fish stocks. The Trust has called on its members to support a petition, which has already gained nearly 20,000 signatures, challenging the recent re-opening of a commercial net fishery targeting spring salmon, one of the most threatened stocks, and calling on the government to reverse the decision.
Salmon angling is a vital part of the Scottish economy; tens of thousands of anglers from all over the world come to fish on famous rivers such as the Tay, Dee, Spey, and Tweed, and they collectively spend hundreds of millions of pounds in the Scottish economy. All this activity depends on the health of wild fish stocks which are under serious threat from policies emerging from the Scottish government.
Tomorrow, 15th January, the First Minister is due to attend the traditional opening ceremony to celebrate the start of the salmon angling season on the River Tay and it is hoped that this will lead to better policy decisions that protect wild fisheries and the angling industry properly.
Alex Salmond has shown enthusiastic support for the salmon farming industry which has directly led to the decline in stocks of wild salmon and sea trout on the West Coast of Scotland, with the loss of hundreds of jobs previously supported, directly and indirectly, by recreational salmon angling. His government refused to accept a number of very sensible amendments to the Aquaculture & Fisheries Bill (now Act) which were proposed by environmental and fisheries organisations to try and reduce the impact of this highly polluting industry.
The Scottish Government also allowed the continuation and expansion of mixed-stock netting at sea in 2012, which catches fish indiscriminately, including fish returning to rivers where stocks cannot support exploitation. This decision has led to strong calls for a re-opening of commercial netting of mixed-stocks in Greenland, which has been reduced to subsistence catches for over a decade to protect vulnerable stocks. Greenlanders have been asking why they should hold back from catching fish – many of them from UK rivers – which go to Greenland to feed on small fish and shrimps, while mixed-stock nets continue to operate in the UK.
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal said: “The Scottish Government has shown a poor understanding of the economic importance of angling to rural communities. Tens of thousands of anglers from Britain and the rest of the world spend a small fortune travelling to fish Scottish rivers and they make a complex contribution to the local economy, supporting hotels, pubs, shops and the fishing tackle industry. Many of the decisions that have been taken in recent years have threatened wild fish, which have been spawning in Scottish rivers for millennia, for the sake of a short-term profit from aquaculture and commercial mixed-stock netting. If Greenland starts netting salmon again as a result of the Scottish Government’s failure to act to protect wild fish, the future of salmon fishing in the UK will be put at risk. We urge all anglers to write to sign this petition to protect spring salmon from commercial exploitation.”