It was lovely and sunny today, but the first day that it felt like autumn has arrived with a distinct chill on the breeze and the big coat out of the wardrobe. We met Will Akast, Catchment Delivery Manager-Suffolk, with the Environment Agency, standing on the sea wall at Manningtree. After exchanging introductions and admiring the view for a few minutes we head into town to find a cafe, which didn't take too long.
We'd seen Environment Agency signs and heard about their work from others all along the river so it was good to speak to Will and find out what their role is in the management of the waterways and surrounding countryside. In fact, it turns out that they do quite a lot. The hydrological year runs from October to October so we're just embarking on a new year, with a chance to assess what has happened in the year before and to take stock of the year ahead. It's a time when water usage is at its lowest, crops have been harvested and rain fall is starting to increase after the summer. The aquifer needs this time to replenish and keep at a sustainable level as its estimated that if there were just two dry winters in a row it would get to a critical level and water security would get to a dangerous level. In the east of the country we have relatively low rain fall, which together with high population and increasing agricultural demand could pose a significant problem. A solution to manage water security in the east of the country has been in place since the 1970's. It's called the Ely Ouse to Essex Transfer Scheme and can transfer as much as 48 million litres of water per day between The Ely Ouse in Norfolk and The Stour, Colne and Blackwater Rivers in Essex. These in turn can supply the Essex reservoirs at Hanningfield, Abberton and Ardleigh, on which the inhabitants of Essex rely for their every day water consumption.
The EA have lots of other tasks to undertake to maintain the waterways of Essex. They check water quality for levels of nitrates, phosphates and other chemical, particularly those used in agriculture. They work continuously with farmers to maintain good soil quality, install buffer strips (areas of wild plants left in arable areas) and encourage the planting of cover crops (such as clover) during times when crops aren't being grown. They try to find ways that run off from the agricultural land is kept to a manageable level, particularly during stormy or wet weather conditions. Flood risk management is key and small as well as large infrastructure is implemented and maintained in preparation for times when water levels can get very high. Examples of this are grass verges at Stratford St.Mary and the Nayland flood channel. Regular inspection and maintenance of the sea walls along the estuary are essential as are other structures like the Cattawade Flood Barrier. Another important role is clearing up after chemical spills, taking readings of contaminated areas and preparing evidence in order to prosecute polluters.
Will described to us how a healthy river should be, how gravelly river beds benefit fish and invertibrates and the impact that sediment has on the survival of these river dwellers. As well as covering up much needed spawning grounds amongst the stones the sediment encourages nutrient loading which influences organisms in different ways, from altering the rate of plant growth to changing reproduction patterns. This is turn can lead to a smaller variety of plants and animals that can survive, and to algal blooms which reduce the oxygen levels in the water, which again affects the remaining inhabitants. To combat this the EA encourage the use of de-silting, rather than dredging, as the latter removes almost everything in the river and its banks.
The migration of species has been a big problem since the river was made navigable, with many impassable obstructions in the way of all manner of fish, eels and otters, solutions to which are being installed at many places along the river. Invasive species are another problem that affect the river. Himalayan Balsam is a beautiful plant that we saw in many places whilst we were kayaking this year. But left to its own devices it will start to take over so a biological control in the form of a rust fungus is being developed to counteract its spread. Japanese knotweed and Giant Hogweed are other plants that need to be controlled and whilst the EA support the clearing of these plants the responsibility for control lies with the landowner.
When we did Sudbury-to-the-Sea earlier in the year we were among the first groups of people to use the newly restored Stratford St Mary lock. The River Stour Trust had secured funding and put in many hours to return the lock to its former working glory, which many people can now enjoy. The RST had to obtain a permit from the EA to carry out the work, and also to operate it. This indicates a recent shift in legislation, where the onus to maintain and operate locks now lies with the owners. Whilst the EA grants the permits and has an overall view of the owners and users of the river, tax payers money won't now be used to maintain private property and owners will have to pay for this themselves. Operation of the locks has to be regulated as if the lock are opened too often water levels may fall too low and impact on the river's health, wildlife and many other users of the waterways. The River Stour Trust in particular are fiercely defensive of the river as a navigable waterway, having successfully fought in parliament 50 years ago to keep it open to the public and throughout this project we have met many people who feel passionately about the keeping the river as a beautiful place for all to enjoy.
It was good to meet up with Will and find out what the Environment Agency does and what roles they perform in managing the river. He certainly shares that same passion for the river and is working hard to preserve the valley for the people and wildlife that live there.