Monday, January 27, 2014

The Amoco Cadiz, an Oily Shag and Further Flooding

Ok, Ok, we have had enough rain for the time being , a week or two break would be nice to allow what’s fallen in recent weeks to work its way down into the ground, where, despite recent reports, there is still plenty of room. At the end of October these aquifers were at the lowest level they have been for many years, for the second time in three years (the first was the wet summer of 2012 which started with most spring fed rivers down to their bare bones following successive dry winters) the “get out of jail” card has been flourished by the chalkstream environment.

As ever verbal guff over current conditions is very much to the fore, highlighting the fact that we in the South of England no longer “get” water. Groundwater flooding has become an increasing threat in these environs. A brief bumble along the spring ditch that runs through the neighbouring village revealed all manner of obstacles in the channel with fingers pointed back and forth as to who was causing the road to flood. Chicken wire strung across the water course didn’t help, or the bonfire that had been constructed in the channel bed in drier times, the builder’s rubble ,broken branches and pallets played their part along with the decaying vegetation from last summer. The bore of the pipes that take the ditch under the road always seem a little undergunned during times such as these and then the new bridge that has been set too low and covered with wire came into play, several large willows that now grow in the stream and another bridge that was now acting as a weir added their two penneth before the water made its way away from the village and down into the meadows. On at least four occasions in the past week I have heard people whose properties border the ditch say that it is nothing to do with them, and perhaps it isn’t, but cut back all the branches and vegetation, clear out all the crud and re-site the two bridges and the profile of a ditch will be revealed that has carried water through and away from the village for many hundreds of years. At the moment it is not being given the chance to demonstrate what it is capable of. It is a collective responsibility that is not aided by denial and finger pointing, and until all buy into that idea, the water will continue to flow across the road and creep its way across several gardens. Ditch maintenance seems to have become a forgotten task in many parts of the country but in a chalk valley it really is a “no brainer”.

Some years ago I was charged with looking after the local football pitch. I once reached the heady heights of Hants FA's groundsman of the year before I was done for by google earth when it became apparent that the picture I painted on a verdant canvas in the medium of white wash and pitch marker wasn’t quite the shape it should have been and may have had an influence over home team tactics and results. I would clear out the ditch as a matter of course in order to get games on, Following the high water of 2000/2001 I widened the ditch downstream from the pitch and raised an offending bridge by a foot as it had slumped in time and was holding water up, raised a foot in subsequent winters we never missed a fixture, A century ago there would have been a gang of blokes charged with clearing the village ditches out in the autumn We may have the internet, digital watches and washing machines that have replaced the mangle but our understanding and management of water at a local level is vastly inferior to that of our forefathers.

Sitting over the road is a house built without foundations straight onto the gravel in a flood plain, despite current conditions it is under no threat of flooding, the installation of a series of hatches gives full control of the river, and yes it is possible to operate a set of hatches in a way that does not impact on the biodiversity of the river valley, (EN and EA take note, it may worth a go at the environmental experience in the neighbouring urban environs) Chalkstreams must be managed and the ditches that feed them maintained else puddles appear on the carpet.


Weird weather this weekend including what is being describes as a mini tornado, saw several more trees tumble down, causing my chainsaw to emit an audible “bloody hell” I also ventured into the river midweek and was nearly caught out by the force of the water, In the wading Olympics I’d back myself as a medal prospect, having had extensive experience of jumping in and out of rivers but the speed of flow and the looseness of the gravel underfoot sent me shuffling for dry land. I jumped in to pull out several large branches that were begin to cause problems upstream and at this point I would like to ask “Flood Defence” their opinion of “woody debris” and two thousand word articles in the angling press urging all and sundry to fling as much wood into the river channel as possible (I will never let this one go) earlier in the week I had cause to enter the river to remove a prime piece of “woody debris” that had blocked the main hatch on the mill house, a natural process over which a man in fine fleece and cutting edge walking shoes would encourage us to take a watching brief and see what happened, which I did for five minutes before spending much of the afternoon pulling it out from the mouth of culvert.

While preparations were being made for the "The Voice" on Saturday night I received a text saying that someone had dumped some oil just downstream close to the river. With immediate thoughts of The Amoco Cadiz, I swung into action,there'd be no oily shags on my watch, so I dashed outside rolled across the bonnet of my car before steaming off down the lane only to come across the top of a substantial ash tree that blocked the lane, the saw was fired up and the errant ash soon succumbed. Half an hour later in fading light it was possible to make out ten yards of ditch filled with a black liquid that looked to be sump oil. A call was made to The pollution hotline at Command Centre central where a very nice lady whose name I forget took my personal details, postcode, address and political persuasion before asking me what the problem was and were the voles ok? There had been a major incident somewhere in the country over a spillage of bubble bath that was causing some remarkable foaming below a weir on a river I do not know the location of, It’s a National Hotline the river could have been anywhere. I was awarded a reference number and invited to call back in a few days.


The following day we had an inch of rain and the level in the ditch lifted and threatened to flow out into a neighbouring spring hole that fed into the river. A man had visited the site and during a follow up phone call a few days later I was informed that it wasn’t really their “thing" but they would put some mats down to soak up the oil and did I know that oil floated?

at which point I raised my voice,

which probably wasn’t what was required, because he was only doing his job.

I was aware that oil floated and shouldn't have objected to a tone that implied they were required at all times to cater for the lowest common denominator.

Now I don’t expect to be giving up my bath to any oiled up water birds at any point this week, and the amount of water running through the main river would undoubtedly help dilute any pollution incident, but there was a significant amount of oil tipped into this ditch which feeds into a spring hole and then into the river all of which form part of the SSSI. I wouldn’t want to overplay the seriousness of the incident, but it was a crass act implemented by mogadons and out of kilter with modern times. It wouldn’t have taken much of a lift in water for the oil to enter the spring hole and subsequently the river.

Upstream from here the river continues to make its way out of the main channel and across the meadows to a spring ditch that feeds into our top bends. A still ditch for much of the past few years it now runs like a river and has thrown up new gravel bars on a right angled bend that always holds fish. It will be interesting to see how this affects lies in the coming season. All fish are holed up in different holes than where the summer angler would expect to find them but with a few months of high flows there will be some fit fish around at the start of the season along with a few escapees from the local big fish water who have literally swam and swam right over the dam.

Flooding in other parts of the country is currently front page news. Many have called for rivers to be dredged to put an end to all this nonsense, while a chap in Oxfordshire was fined £30000 for digging out a ditch that was home to Victor Vole, which once again illustrates the dichotomy that exists within the Environment Agency.

The Somerset levels behave in a different way to a chalkstream so who I am I to offer a solution, but they have flooded for hundreds of years and a network of ditches and culverts That may once have existed to help cope with the problem now no longer exist or are, for whatever reason, not maintained or managed in the way that they once were. The appearance of large pumps on the levels suggests that internal wrangling at the EA between flood defence who would get rid of the water and the “conservationists” who would retain the water, has gone the way of flood defence.

Why has the campaign to reintroduce the beaver gone quiet?

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