On October 21st the Environment Agency launched a 12 month River Maintenance Pilot to de-regulating the Land Drainage Consenting process for dredging to remove silt, therefore allowing farmers and landowners to maintain rivers themselves. This has been achieved by issuing a Regulatory Position Statement (RPS), which, in effect sets out conditions under which the EA will not enforce, consenting rules. The detail of those conditions is set out in the Good Practice Guide, which accompanies the RPS. The pilots are in the following seven areas:
- Alt Crossens catchment, Lancashire
- River Duckow, Shropshire
- River Idle, Nottinghamshire
- Bottesford Beck, North Lincolnshire
- River Brue, Somerset
- Upper Thames, Oxfordshire
- Winestead Drain, East Ridings of Yorkshire
The Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA), alongside the partners in the Blueprint for Water, have expressed deep concern over the pilot schemes as we believe it has the potential to seriously impact the ecology of river systems through the uncoordinated and unregulated actions of people who will not necessarily have any knowledge of river dynamics. We have recently written to the Secretary of State reiterating these concerns and signposting him to a short video, Unintended effects of dredging (click on title to access video) made by colleagues in the Wild Trout Trust and Severn Rivers Trust which, despite only being a couple of minutes long, quite clearly shows the potential effects of dredging both up and downstream.
The vocal opposition of NGOs has led to significant revisions to the RPS, for example, it now will not apply during spawning periods on salmonid or cyprinid rivers and only applies to artificial, straightened or previously dredged channels. But, while the RPS and guidance looks robust on paper, the EA will be relying on existing monitoring to evaluate the pilots and assess compliance, which is completely inadequate.
Notwithstanding our concerns above, we should be mindful of the financial constraints the Environment Agency is operating under which mean landowners and communities who have benefited from Government funded flood defences are now facing cuts. As such, the pilots could offer an opportunity to champion alternatives to dredging – one where habitat creation and restoration builds resilience for wildlife and communities, whilst also addressing landowner concerns. With that in mind, locally you will have to decide whether environmental risk and/or opportunities warrant diverting limited resources to get involved with pilots. If the decision is made to engage locally it is vital that engagement should in no way be considered as our acceptance of the efficacy of dredging as a flood risk management tool.
The UK Government has responsibilities under European legislation to achieve good ecological status in our rivers and, importantly, to ensure no further degradation. It is now accepted by the EA, and strongly supported by S&TA and other environmental organisations, that this can only realistically be achieved under catchment management plans, coordinating not just flood defence, but all the other issues which impact rivers. This River Maintenance Pilots scheme immediately reverses that thinking, and threatens all the work being undertaken by the EA and third sector organisations to restore and protect our waterways. It also, we would suggest, jeopardises the Government's ability to meet EU environmental legislation objectives, and so risks future infraction proceedings.
We believe there is a compromise solution. Defra should provide the resources for the EA to establish a fast track decision making system so that landowners in the pilot areas save time but also coordinate their dredging activities within the catchment and under the regulator's scrutiny. This would cut down the red tape and should ensure minimal environmental impact, at the same time as providing a useful pointer as to how catchment management would work in future.
If you are involved in the pilots and would like to discuss this further, or during the course of the year have concerns you think may be the result of the pilots, please contact: