The Natural Environment and Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, has moved to calm a growing storm of protest in response to reports that the Secretary of State Owen Paterson had instructed the Environment Agency to prepare options for the deregulation of river dredging to assist farmers and landowners reduce agricultural flood risks.
The Angling Trust secured an urgent meeting with Mr Benyon in his constituency, rather than waiting weeks for a slot in the Defra ministers diary, in order to convey the concerns of anglers, fishery owners and conservation and wildlife groups that the government was about to rip up decades of environmental protection and return to the bad old practices of turning once natural rivers into drainage ditches.
The Environment Agency had been asked by Mr Paterson to consider how it can make it easier for farmer and landowners to undertake their own watercourse maintenance in response to some strong lobbying by the National Farmers Union (NFU) in the aftermath of last years' heavy rainfall and flooding.
Mr Paterson is reported as telling the South West Agricultural Conference last month, in response to a question from Charles Mann the NFU County chair:-
"A directive went out from EA in 2006 that low risk agricultural water courses were not to be touched. A misguided idea that this was helping wildlife. I want to make it as easy as possible for land owners to get a licence to carry out local maintenance. The purpose of waterways is to get rid of water."
Small wonder then that anglers and wildlife groups became concerned!
Mr Benyon has now written to Angling Trust Campaigns Chief Martin Salter to clarify the government's position and to confirm that 'a wholesale deregulation is absolutely NOT what we are doing.'
Martin Salter said:
"Whilst we welcome these assurances from Richard Benyon the government has only got itself to blame for its hamfisted, knee-jerk attempt to make policy changes in a highly sensitive area without either a formal announcement of intent or proper consultation. The UK government is fully signed up to a whole raft of environmental protections for our rivers including the Water Framework and Habitats Directives. Any attempt to weaken these and allow a return the dark days of the 60s and 70s when land drainage engineers were allowed to wreak havoc with natural rivers and streams at the expense of fisheries and the wider environment would be fought all the way to the courts by the Angling Trust and our partner organisations."
"It's a shame Mr Paterson didn't find time to check the EAs own website which has a very handy guide explaining why dredging is rarely effective in preventing flood damage and often causes other problems elsewhere in the catchment."
The EA guide states:
Why doesn't dredging stop rivers from flooding?
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 what we call the 'floodplain'. The floodplain is 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.
Floodplains form naturally as a response to extreme flooding . The idea of dredging to try and tackle extreme flooding is similar to the thought of trying to squeeze all of the water held in a floodplain back into the river. Since the floodplain volume is usually many times bigger than the river channel volume, this would be a major engineering project , and would cause massive environmental change.
Richard Benyon's letter is in marked contrast to the tone adopted by the Secretary of State. It states:
'Defra is keen to remove unnecessary burdens which could discourage farmers and landowners, many of whom have been severely affected by recent floods, from undertaking their own watercourse maintenance.
- The Environment Agency is therefore working with the NFU and Natural England to look at ways of easing red tape associated with the consenting process for such activities, while ensuring this does not adversely impact on habitats, fisheries or protected species.
- This is not about the Government withdrawing from regulation of dredging but about simplifying processes to enable farmers to act to reduce flood risk or improve drainage without unnecessary cost or complication.
- With proper planning, watercourse maintenance can be undertaken in ways which do not harm the environment and which support wildlife interests. We are committed to ensuring that continues to happen.
- The Government is deeply mindful of its environmental responsibilities, and our ambitions for conserving and restoring aquatic biodiversity. We will ensure that any proposals are in line with those objectives.
- We intend to involve all interested parties, including conservation and fisheries interests, in taking this work forward. I understand that the Environment Agency has arranged a meeting with Wildlife Link organisations, including the Angling Trust, on 17 June to discuss our emerging thinking in more detail.'
Angling Trust Chief Executive Mark Lloyd commented:
"Dredging rivers can have a very severe impact on fish and other wildlife by removing gravels, woody debris and aquatic plants that are all vital parts of fish habitat. These features provide the places for fish to lay their eggs, find their food and to escape from predators. Removing them would mean that fish cannot breed, feed or hide, and the populations will suffer as a result.
Dredging can actually make flooding significantly worse further downstream by speeding water down the catchment. Rivers flood and they flood into floodplains. By spilling out over such a large area, the peak flows are reduced and water soaks into the ground which provides a steady baseflow in the summer months when it is most needed."
"Widespread dredging of rivers to stop flooding would be a massive, pointless and damaging waste of public funds. Of course, there might be potential for farmers to do some dredging themselves, instead of it being done by the Internal Drainage Boards or the Environment Agency, but it must be very tightly regulated and restricted to places where it can really be justified. If we allow farmers to dredge wherever they like, we will see more flooding, not less, and the next generation of young people will have fewer and fewer places where they can go fishing in a healthy river environment. The Angling Trust is urging the government to tread very carefully."
Many studies, including the one below, have demonstrated why dredging is often a pointless exercise as a means of flood prevention and causes serious damage to the ecology of the river systems.