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Government must wake up to importance of dredging

The cessation of river dredging which was brought about by the introduction of the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) in 2000 has been a major factor in increasing the UK’s susceptibility to flooding.  


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A lack of dredging was blamed for the Somerset floods. Credit Ben Birchall/PA Wire
A lack of dredging was blamed for the Somerset floods. Credit Ben Birchall/PA Wire

 

Philip Walling, former farmer, barrister and author of the best-selling Counting Sheep, said while the impact of dredging had long been debated, it was often neglected by local authorities.

 

“For all of recorded history, it almost went without saying that a watercourse needed to be big enough to take any water that flowed into it, otherwise it would overflow and inundate the surrounding land and houses,” said Mr Walling.

 

“City authorities and, before them, manors and towns and villages, organised themselves to make sure their watercourses were cleansed, deepened and sometimes embanked to hold whatever water they had to carry away.”

 

He said Cumbrian rivers were notoriously quick to rise, as heavy rain falling on the High Fells rapidly ran off thin soils and the large surface area over which it fell.

 

Over many centuries, fines were imposed on occupiers for neglecting to cleanse the watercourses which ran through their land.

 

“It was obvious to people, who depended on the land for their living, that failing to keep the rivers clear of sand and gravel would cause them to burst their banks and destroy in a few hours fertility that had taken generations to create, wash away their houses, and drown their livestock,” he added.

 

Last century, the obligation to dredge rivers was undertaken by local river boards, however this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when the EWF was adopted.

 

“No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding,” said Mr Walling.

 

“Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. ‘Heavily modified waters’, which include rivers dredged or embanked to prevent flooding, cannot, by definition, satisfy the terms of the directive.

 

“So, in order to comply with the obligations imposed on us by the EU we had to stop dredging.”

 

Mr Walling highlighted the large supply of grant money available for conservation and river restoration schemes, adding money spent on ineffective flood defences, such as in Carlisle and Keswick, would be better used to remove the build-up of gravel from the river bed.

 

Mr Walling said: “The truth they don’t tell you is that even if they wanted to, neither the UK government, nor the Environment Agency has the power to dredge – or the money.”


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