I hear rumours that Owen Patterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – perhaps under pressure from the farming lobby – has proposed a relaxation of current by-laws governing dredging in rivers. Under new proposals it is understood that farmers would be allowed to dredge small rivers (up to 5 meters width) without permission from the Environment Agency.
If this is true it would be an environmental disaster. It is so hard nowadays to give those words gravity. Everything is an environmental disaster. But if many are 1970s Daleks unable to climb the stairs, this one would be a proper 21st Century Valdermort. A real environmental disaster of note. And all the more so for being so eminently capable of slipping under the radar.
The current situation is bad enough. In certain parts of the country the dinosaurs who ruined our rivers by dredging them in the Sixties and Seventies – or if not the actual people then their intellectual legacies – still more or less rule the waterways. Destructive dredging operations still go on, reaching fever pitch towards the end of each financial year. But the tide of destruction is held – just about – in abeyance by some dim synapse-illuming awareness that these dredgings are environmentally questionable. Untethered by de-regulation I can’t even begin to imagine the scale of the ensuing destruction.
The logic is totally flawed anyway. If you dredge a river you make it wider, deeper and more uniform than it would naturally be. The silt which the flow carries – nowadays far greater than ever before because of winter ploughing, prairie-sized fields, neglected hedges, and the burgeoning size of verge-crushing farm machinery – instead of being either swept out to sea, or deposited in the morphologically correct places that only a functioning river can determine, drops out instead into what has been made a silt trap – the gutter-like channel. A few dry summers and wettish winters will surely follow the outlandishly drenched year that precipitated this new call to arms, during which the farmers will forget, but the crippled river will not, and slowly the once-dynamic channel will fill with silt, so that next time the rains come back with a vengeance the situation will have been made far worse than if the river had been left alone in the first place.
I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, by the way. Jeremy Purseglove wrote all about the pointlessness and destructiveness of dredging in the 1980’s in his seminal book Taming the Flood.
It was a work that changed the way we looked at rivers, or at least the way some of us did. Purseglove argued that not only was a river a dynamic, self-sustaining system that evolves to a size and shape – if you leave it alone – that is precisely the size and shape it needs to be, but also that natural rivers are their own flood-defence mechanisms. When it pisses down, a lot of water falls on the land. If you speed its flow down gutters someone somewhere will get a wet carpet. Someone somewhere may drown. YOU CANT HAVE DREDGED RIVERS AND UNFLOODED HOUSES. It just doesn’t work.
Ever since Purseglove’s book this ebb and flow struggle has played out, between those who see rivers as gutters and just don’t get the counter-productiveness of their thinking, and those who see rivers as dynamic and self-managing systems that are toyed with at our collective peril. I thought, naively perhaps, that the latter school of thought was slowly winning the argument. But here we are again, back at the beginning.
The farmers have had a dreadful year. They are months behind and many have lost money. The more thoughtful will put that down to the fact that it has rained a lot. Others “want something done about it”, though if there is one thing we can’t really change it is the weather.
The Government is strapped for cash and perhaps see the farmer’s complaints as a bingo opportunity to unload some management responsibilities in their direction. But this is all too easy and wrong-headed. Patterson’s proposals, if these rumours are indeed correct (and the sources are pretty reliable), are a great mistake, not to say potentially a crass ship-wrecking of some real gains in environmental stewardship made over the last few decades. Please think again Mr Patterson.