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Nobody seems to have noticed that NOT dredging rivers is in fact EU policy Nobody seems to have noticed that NOT dredging rivers is in fact EU policy

The current flooding crisis has highlighted the reality of climate change, as well as the inability of politicians to deal with what are essentially long-term problems says Rod Sturdy.







The national press has been full of the usual letters calling, in effect, for a return to the widespread (and very destructive) dredging of rivers. Anyone who remembers the wholesale ‘improvement’ of ‘problem’ rivers which used to be carried out will know that such a watercourse after the treatment is a heart-breaking sight: stretches straightened and canalised, bushes severely pruned or ripped out, banks reduced to bare soil and the slope cut to a uniform angle, trees removed and every vestige of cover removed and burnt. Nothing is allowed to hinder the rapid run-off in times of flood and as soon as the river shows signs of going back to nature, the process is repeated. It reduces a river to the status of a drainage ditch.

Nobody seems to have noticed that not dredging rivers is in fact EU policy. Far from there being, in the words of the local MP for those afflicted on the Levels, ‘a twenty-year backlog of dredging’, the reality is that there is a policy in place to encourage such wetlands to flood: habitat restoration, in other words.

It has also, in human terms, been referred to as ‘managed retreat’. The idea (a very sensible one in my view) is to create ‘washlands’, areas which are allowed to flood both for the purpose of water management and for the benefit of wildlife. All I can comment personally here is: ‘thank God for the EU’. I note as I write this that the said MP is accusing Chris Smith, Head of the EA, of cowardice in the face of an ongoing crisis. The name of the game is as usual to secure short-term political advantage - and the name-calling will go on for sure.

If anyone has been cowardly, it is the politicians. They should long ago, with that agreed environmental policy firmly in mind, have taken the bull by the horns and formally agreed a policy of buy-out/compensation for those few living and working on the Somerset Levels. Likewise the London-Penzance railway line, which is virtually in the sea at low tide even before a storm brews: would it not have been better to exercise a bit of foresight and spend money on re-routing it away from the coast, instead of endlessly debating the doubtful economic benefits of the land-eating, ear-splitting and environmentally destructive HS2?

Local politics is no better of course. There are still council planning departments which are approving applications to build on flood plains, an extremely short-sighted policy. Central government has not helped by subsidising insurance in such areas. All short-term politics. But then, politics was never a very long-term game, was it? It all goes back to a shortage of suitable building land in some areas, of course, combined with an excess of human beings.

The latter thought is of course not just mine; David Attenborough and many other eminent environmentalists and wildlife experts have been in agreement for some considerable time that the earth would be in much better shape if there were not so many of us humans on it, let alone in places which are barely inhabitable to begin with, such as areas liable to disappear under water regularly. If global warming does run its full course as predicted, then there will certainly be fewer of us. Many will be wiped out: rising sea levels, disease and heat-waves, not to mention the scramble to occupy inhabitable areas, will all take their toll. But no politician will tell you these things; they are too long-term to matter when it comes to getting yourself elected.

But  back to dredging.

February 2014 flood warningsThe word has hardly been out of the national news for weeks now. There have been many letters written to the national press calling for a return to the wholesale dredging of rivers throughout the country. Apart from the horrendous expense, in both financial and environmental terms, of doing this, it has long been agreed that it does not work.

Done partially on a river, it can cause mayhem downstream in the form of sudden run-off of a massive amount of water hitting urban areas. How would the residents of Taunton, for example, view a volume and force of water powerful enough to rip out bridges, all done to benefit those few on the Somerset Levels? Because every once in a while (or more often than that, if climate change has its way) there will come such a massive amount of rain that even the best-dredged river cannot cope with it.

This is in fact the case as I write this.

The government is even considering allowing farmers to carry out ‘DIY dredging’. This is without doubt a recipe for disaster in environmental terms. If it went ahead, it is unlikely to be done with much finesse.

There is another element here, and one which during the present ‘monsoons’ has not even rated a mention in the national media. Given climate change, the frequency of droughts is also likely to increase. The recent 2-year spell without significant rain led to a critical shortage of water. The question needs to be asked: if we are currently experiencing mammoth amounts of rain, why is our only response the urge to speed it on its way out to sea? Why are there not better ways of managing it so that it is available when we next have a shortage? The simple fact is that we as a country have no coherent, joined-up national water management policy – yet another political failure.

In the light of all the above, it is clear that as anglers we face an uncertain future. We need to make sure that we are strong and organised enough to exert the right influence on politicians and government bodies and get them to think and act long-term for a change. As it happens, most of our lobbying demands will coincide with those of the environmental movement. But we need to show, through strength of numbers, that we, as anglers, are independent and to be taken seriously.

That is why I urge everyone who reads this and is not a member of the Angling Trust to join now - for our future’s sake.

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Tagged as:

Flood defence, Angling politics, Rod Sturdy, Dredging