Photo above: The River Lugg after Mr Price’s illegal dredging operation. Photo credit: Defra
What’s the country coming to, asks Camilla Tominey in The Daily Telegraph, when a farmer is sent to jail for dredging a river?
Answer … its senses?
There seems to be an idea riding downstream on a flood of protest, that Mr Price, who has been sentenced to a year in jail for dredging almost a mile of the River Lugg in Herefordshire, was performing an act of civic good.
The Lugg is not a chalk stream, but chalk streams are the river type most severely damaged by dredging – historic and current – (because they take the longest time to self-heal) and the ignorance that drove this farmer’s environmental vandalism and that fuels the public debate about it and dredging more generally, is a threat to all rivers.
“Mr Price clearly went too far,” writes Tominey, “but it says something about the state of the Environment Agency that it came to this.”
Would we really have the Environment Agency not bring this action? This was environmental destruction on an industrial scale and it’s the EA’s job to protect the environment, after all. They should be congratulated for pursuing this case and – more to the point – encouraged to do it more often. Environmental laws, which almost all people approve of, mean nothing if they aren’t used.
Of course, knocking the Environment Agency is a national pastime at the moment, in large part because of their apparent reluctance to bring water companies to court for crimes of equal or greater severity. But now the EA’s reputation is in such tatters, even when they do the right thing they are attacked.
Which brings us to the second bit of misunderstanding in CT’s editorial: the river was emphatically not in any kind of mismanaged state due to “the public sector’s awful productivity”. It didn’t need dredging. It didn’t need any of Mr Price’s misguided work.
“What does it say about the Environment Agency and Natural England [NE] that a man who has lived along that stretch of river all his life had to resort to such drastic measures in the apparent belief that nobody else was willing to protect his flood-prone community?”
It says this: that the EA and NE have not yet managed to educate the public about the real causes of flooding and how these can best be mitigated, based on science and not supposition. Mr Price wasn’t protecting his flood-prone community. He was making it more likely his local community would suffer from flooding.
This seems to be a very hard idea to get across to the good folk of this rain-swept isle, but managing flooding has very little to do with the volumetric capacity of the channel – how big you make it by dredging – and much more to do with the capacity of the channel to convey water, and the rate at which the water pours down the catchment. Think for a moment about the size of the River Lugg catchment: 885 square kilometres. An inch of rain landing one wet Welsh afternoon on 885 sq. km. equates to 22 million cubic meters of water, which – because of the way we ditch and drain our landscape – will all be trying to reach the sea in a hurry.
You simply can’t make the channel of the Lugg wide enough to take that peak flow. It has to spill onto a floodplain somewhere. That’s how rivers work: the main channel, the bit we consider to be the river, is actually only a part of the river: the bit that can take most flows, but not really high flows. The rest of the river is the floodplain (it’s in the name) and this is the bit nature has designed to accommodate those really high flows. The floodplain is the pressure relief valve and without them rivers would become immensely more destructive and lethal.
Now, consider that many of the photos of Mr Price in the media show him standing on a bridge at the downstream end of the reach he dredged: even if you could turn the entire floodplain upstream of this point into a massive empty hole ready to accommodate those 22 million cubic meters of water – in which case he wouldn’t be farming it – what are you going to do about the bridge? Or the next bridge? Or Hereford?
In rivers, flood escape rate is mostly controlled by these relatively immovable, man-made pinch points and not the size of the channel between them. Think of bridges and weirs as road-works and lane closures on motorways. That’s why flooding often hits towns and cities: they are very significant pinch points.
On the basis that you cannot actually prevent peak flood-flows from spilling out of the banks of the main channel, the question then becomes where do you want that flooding to occur and where would you rather it didn’t occur? Answer: I don’t see any houses on Mr Price’s meadows! The best we can do to prevent flooding of our homes is to allow flooding onto the floodplains in the upper catchment. What we should absolutely NOT do is drain the upper catchment so the rain all arrives at downstream pinch points in a hurry.
I’d have thought all this is obvious – I mean my dog more or less knows she can’t get a big stick through a narrow door – but year after year the media just totally fails to get it.
What does it say about our justice system, that Mr Price has been sentenced to 12 months in jail.
That it works, occasionally? There’s already an appeal crowd-funder and petition against his sentence. Emily Naylor, who’s started that petition said that Mr Price “did the most amazing job” in clearing the banks and dredging the bottom of the River Lugg.
CTs editorial, and much of the subsequent commentary like this, just doesn’t really seem to acknowledge or take any trouble to imagine the environmental destruction involved in what Mr Price did. The river banks he excavated will have been home to water voles, a protected species and as is so oft quoted, Britain’s most endangered mammal. The trees will have been home to protected bats and no doubt owls and other birdlife. The gravels on the river bed will have been home to white-clawed crayfish: another protected species, increasingly rare. The gravels were also spawning grounds for Atlantic salmon, also protected and also hanging on for dear life in the south-west England and Wales. It will take years for this section of river to recover, decades for the trees to re-grow.
Mr Price had form, so it seems from the reports. He had allegedly done this kind of work before and had been warned not to on several other occasions. It would appear that he thought he knew best. Which he didn’t. His destruction of the river was wanton.
The science of river morphology and flow is reasonably complex and some of it is counter-intuitive. The fact that the local community felt that old-school dredging protected them from flooding is no justification of the work: there are wrong if they think that, and to say as much isn’t at all from a lack of sympathy for those whose properties are flood-prone. Mr Price’s old school land management is the problem, not the cure.
Was the sentence too harsh? It was a tough one, but the judge has sent a warning shot across the bows of other land managers and not before time. Hopefully they will think again before emulating Mr Price.
For too long we have been pointlessly tidying the potentially wilder fringes of our landscape – like rivers – and nuking the habitats of British wildlife, all the while cooing over nature documentaries shot in other parts of the world. Surely Attenborough’s new series, which he wouldn’t have been able to film at all if the nation’s rivers were managed by Mr Price, has taught us to value the wild and the wet in our own backyards?