Amid all the devastation and recrimination over the floods in Cumbria hardly anybody mentions one factor that may not be the sole cause, but certainly hasn’t helped, and that is the almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000.
Yet until then, for all of recorded history, it almost went without saying that a watercourse needed to be big enough to take any water that flowed into it, otherwise it would overflow and inundate the surrounding land and houses.
Every civilisation has known that, except apparently ours. It is just common sense. City authorities and, before them, manors and towns and villages, organised themselves to make sure their watercourses were cleansed, deepened and sometimes embanked to hold whatever water they had to carry away.
In nineteenth century Cockermouth they came up with an ingenious way of doing this. Any able-bodied man seeking bed and board for the night in the workhouse was required to take a shovel and wheelbarrow down to the River Derwent and fetch back two barrow-loads of gravel for mending the roads. This had the triple benefit of dredging the river, maintaining the roads and making indigent men useful.
In Cumbria they knew they had to keep the river clear of the huge quantities of gravel that were washed down from the fells, especially in times of flood. For Cumbrian rivers are notoriously quick to rise as the heavy rain that falls copiously on the High Fells rapidly runs off the thin soils and large surface area over which it falls. Cumbrian people have always known that their rivers would be subject to such sudden and often violent inundations and prepared for them by deepening and embanking their channels. Such work was taken very seriously.
There are numerous records over many centuries of the Cockermouth Court Leet (Manor Court) imposing fines on occupiers for neglecting to cleanse the watercourses that ran through their land. So important was it to prevent flooding that the court often issued detailed and explicit instructions to parishes how to cleanse their various watercourses. For example in 1718 (and again in 1772) certain owners, whose land bordered the river, were fined for allowing it to become ‘beaten out of its course by sand and gravel’ and given two months to dredge it out.
It was obvious to people, who depended on the land for their living that failing to keep the rivers clear of sand and gravel would cause them to burst their banks and destroy in a few hours fertility that had taken generations to create, wash away their houses, and drown their livestock.
Last century the obligation to dredge out the rivers was transferred to local river boards, consisting of farmers and landowners who knew the area and its characteristics, and who had statutory responsibilities to prevent or minimise flooding.
But all this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when we adopted the European Water Framework Directive in 2000. No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’. ‘Heavily modified waters’, which include rivers dredged or embanked to prevent flooding, cannot, by definition, ever satisfy the terms of the directive. So, in order to comply with the obligations imposed on us by the EU we had to stop dredging and embanking and allow rivers to ‘re-connect with their floodplains’, as the currently fashionable jargon has it.