Tackling flooding in Cumbria – Have we found the right solution?

It is ten years ago today since my hometown Cockermouth in Cumbria flooded to a depth of over 10 feet in areas closest to the River Derwent. As its name suggests Cockermouth lies at the confluence of the Rivers Derwent and Cocker, in an area known to be inhabited long before the Romans arrived to set up the fortified town of Derventio.

Cockermouth town centre has flooded many times in the last millennia and at least three times in the last 100 years so it is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, when the water strikes it is devastating, financially for the community and personally for many people in the lower lying areas. In 2009, unprecedented levels of  rainfall (since surpassed in 2015), had fallen over the high fells of Cumbria, cascading down the rivers, carving a trail of destruction, wiping away roads and bridges, eventually to flood the market towns of Keswick and Cockermouth. More than 900 properties and over 1400 people were affected in Cockermouth alone, as the rivers burst their banks and a creeping tide of floodwater seeped towards Main Street. Across Cumbria £276m damage occurred as a result of this event

By mid- afternoon, Thursday 19th November 2009, in continuing torrential rain, I left my place of work, Cockermouth auction mart to try and get home along the A66 towards Penrith. It was clear that this was turning into major incident. I just needed to get home knowing there were pinch points along the A66 towards Keswick where the Lake could over top the road.

As I got to Bassenthwaite Lake, the water had risen and the A66 was impassable. I did a u- turn and scooted back through Dubwath and Bassenthwaite village heading over the fell road to Caldbeck and Hesket New Market before eventually making it home an hour later. I was lucky.

In Cockermouth, Keswick and along the banks of several rivers there were scenes of devastation. A network of support groups sprang into action. Emergency services began to rescue people trapped in their homes, checking properties to ensure no one was left in danger. Drop- in centres were set up to help those whose homes were under water. Also, food banks and even clothing banks for those who left home with nothing.

It would take many months to recover and yet the local community stoically made a point of turning on some Christmas lights once the waters had receded, even though the shops were wrecked and empty. Sadly, a policeman lost his life in Workington when a major bridge collapsed. Many families were unable to return home for months, living in rented accommodation or hotels.

Research would suggest that the county lost more than £2.5m in tourist trade with nearly all businesses being affected across the county and sadly 6% of whom ceased trading. It prompted the development of a new state of the art £4.4m flood barrier system that could never be over topped. Only six years later the barrier was over topped during Storm Desmond, as new record levels of rainfall flooded Cockermouth. Many properties and much land was once again under water.

Floods in Cumbria will continue to happen. It is inevitable. But if we continue to build houses on flood plains and the government fails to invest adequately in the right flood management solutions in the right place, then we will keep letting communities down.

Currently there is a lot of talk in the media about Natural Flood Management (NFM), mainly due to the dreadful flooding in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. After Storm Desmond many hailed NFM as the next big thing. That is slowing the flow of water higher up the catchment, reducing the pressure of flood water lower down the rivers, where bigger towns, villages and even cities tend to be situated. Some thought that this would negate the need for riverbed management or “dredging” as it is colloquially known.

Local communities were aghast. Common practice for generations had dictated that river beds close to communities would be cleaned out on a regular basis to ensure deeper river channels were not clogged up with stone, gravel and silt washed down from the upper valleys. In the river Cocker sink- holes more than 25 feet deep were routinely dug out on a 5- or 10-year cycle to act as gravel traps, slowly but surely filling up again and preventing further depositions downstream. This practice had been outlawed several years before the 2009 storm. All the bridges on the river Cocker above Cockermouth had  gradually clogged up with gravel and slate as the river ran shallower and shallower. During the 2009 storm and again in 2015, many bridges were washed away, unable to cope with the volume of water and the shallow draft of the river.

But here is the good news, “slow the flow” interventions further upstream really do work. The Farmer Network is one organisation involved in several Natural Flood Management projects in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. In the right setting, leaky dams, grass bunds, tree planting and a range of other solutions all work. In some areas it is appropriate to re- wet the land, in order to hold water. In other areas it would be best to keep soils better drained, aerated and dry to act as a sponge to soak up heavy rain and flood water. Some of these interventions can hold back water and are small in scale, but add together several thousand of them across a long Cumbrian catchment, and the sum of all small parts really does add up.

Inevitably the responsibility for this work falls on farmers and other land managers. It is their land that is affected and used for temporary flood water storage. This is where it gets difficult. Flood water, when it recedes, always leaves a dreadful mess, including sand, silt, gravel and all manner of detritus for the farmer to clean up. There is also the issue of crop losses and damage to the soil. This is a fantastic public service if indeed the flood measures are designed specifically to flood the land, to save more damage further downstream. Is the farmer or landowner recompensed for this? Inevitably the answer is not well enough.

There have also been serious difficulties for farmers in getting permission to clear the damage and try to reinstate then land to full production. Frankly there have been too many organisations with interests in catchment management all with an opinion, when clearly the right solution would be to have one managing organisation effectively bring catchment management together and able support those affected by the floods. The situation as seen in 2009 when a landowner had several different organisations telling him what he could not do, and not a single body able to make a decision as to what he could do, to repair his land, must never be allowed to happen again. Repair and recovery needs to be managed swiftly with decision making at a local rather than national level and in a spirit of cooperation.

Let’s get back to dredging ( i do detest that word). There are many locations where engineered solutions and riverbed management can be vital and this work is being done in Cumbria to a limited but effective degree especially since Storm Desmond in 2015. It creates much angst for environmentalists who hate the thought of the riverbed environment and habitats being disturbed. It is also undoubtedly costly to perform. In the past it has been allowed only under licence, which is prohibitively expensive, and certainly not encouraged by government. Yet under pressure from flood affected communities and farmers, it has been allowed and it has been effective in Cumbria.

The unequivocal message is that any flood management solution is only effective if installed and performed in the right place. After the flurry of publicity regarding NFM following Storm Desmond, we are now beginning to see a more balanced view, although others may argue differently.

A one size flood management system does not fit all, and anyone suggesting this is sadly misguided or pursuing their own agenda. This includes those who talk of widespread afforestation, re- wilding and getting rid of Cumbria’s hill sheep as a flood management solution. Absolute rubbish.There are numerous options to combat floodwater all with merit, but only in the right location.

Following Storm Desmond Cumbria Strategic Flood Partnership was created to bring together all groups with an interest or indeed an interest in combating flooding in Cumbria. It has designed a flood hub, including a website to detail schemes, surveys and policies that are being developed within the county. However, to give CSFP a fighting chance, in future there needs to be a change in mindset at Government level, much more investment and more community engagement, the full length of Cumbria’s catchments. The key in all of this is to ensure that whatever the planned solution, it must be joined up with others and not created in isolation. There is a lot of work still do with limited resources. 

Underpinning all of this is the need to ensure that we have healthy, well- managed rivers, productive catchment areas, and the right flood management solutions, in the right places, all working together. It can be done but is only achievable with the benefit of investment, knowledge, education and cooperation.

Failing that, our future choices may be limited to living higher up the hill and away from the flood plain. Having a home full of dirty water is a nightmare. Having it happen on a regular basis or simply waiting for the next time, must be an unimaginable stress. There are communities in Cumbria constantly living with this pressure. Storm Desmond in 2015 repeated the devastation to an even greater degree. It is clear that we need to do much more.

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