Protest as government weakens river dredging controls

The River Tees in flood at Croft - but dredging has been shown to cause more flooding, rather than mitigating for it. Photo: James West (commons.wikimedia.org).
The River Tees in flood at Croft - but dredging has been shown to cause more flooding, rather than mitigating for it. Photo: James West (commons.wikimedia.org).
As the government weakens river dredging legislation, environmental groups have warned of damage to wildlife, increased flooding and potential legal challenges.

The Blueprint for Water coalition of environmental organisations has this week submitted a strong response to the British government, objecting to proposals to weaken controls on river dredging which have been produced at the request of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.

River dredging has been shown to reduce the biodiversity of rivers, radically lowering numbers of fish and invertebrates, and the birds and mammals that depend on them.

The Environment Agency (EA) was asked by Mr Paterson to consider how it could make it easier for farmers and landowners to undertake their own dredging and watercourse maintenance, in response to some heavy lobbying by the National Farmers Union in the aftermath of last year’s heavy rainfall and flooding.

The Agency now proposes to partially deregulate consent for dredging, enabling farmers and landowners to undertake works themselves. The coalition believes that this move contradicts the EA’s own advice on the use of dredging as a flood control measure and is concerned that the deregulation could herald a return to the river management regimes of the 1960s and 70s, a time when valuable habitat was destroyed in the mistaken belief that moving floodwater downstream at a faster rate would reduce flood risk. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that, at best, dredging is ineffective, and at worst can create heavier flooding by increasing the height of peak flows.

Worryingly, Mr Paterson is reported as telling the South West Agricultural Conference in April this year that: "The purpose of waterways is to get rid of water".

The EA have stated that: "dredging river channels doesn't make them big enough to contain the huge volumes of water during a flood. When a major flood occurs, water soon fills the river and enters ... the 'floodplain',  an area of land over which water naturally flows during flooding. Even major dredging will not free up enough space in the river channel to stop this from happening."

Blueprint for Water said: "We do not believe that a return to ad hoc and uncoordinated river 'maintenance' has a role to play in the future.  Such a move is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Catchment Based Approach launched by Richard Benyon in June this year (which will see coordinated action at a local level to improve the health of our river systems), and risks causing significant environmental damage and exacerbating flooding impacts in downstream communities.

"Wetland wildlife is in crisis. We understand the difficulties that heavy rainfall events bring for farmers and for food production, but data from the EA suggests widespread non-compliance with legislation is at the root of many of our run-off and siltation problems. We are concerned that the RPS proposal relaxes controls further and, in doing so reinforces the view that environmental protection is a burden that can be ignored at will, rather than a tool that actually helps control flooding and protects our natural heritage and wildlife for the benefit of all.’

The Blueprint coalition has also warned of potential legal challenges and consequent risks for landowners adding: ‘We have concluded that the will, at best, maintain the status quo but is more likely to pose a significant threat to the natural environment, to compromise domestic and European obligations and put landowners at risk of falling foul of legal requirements."

The coalition suggests that the government should consider piloting an improved fast track consenting process designed to reduce unnecessary red tape while keeping in place existing environmental protections and controls. It says that government should work with farmers to improve soil and land management, to stop soils from washing into rivers into the first place, and should ensure that the flooding of agricultural land is addressed at catchment scale, with a thorough assessment of the causes and development of sustainable solutions.

The Chair of the coalition, Carrie Hume, said: "The government is in danger of creating the triple whammy of a ‘lawyer’s charter’ as well as long term environmental damage and increased flood risk. Common sense must tell them that there is better way."