The Environment Agency – a worrying time for navigations

Created on 01/12/2015

By David W. Struckett, IWA Navigation Committee

My travels this year have included several waters under the control of EA, which operate several river navigations including the Thames, Nene, Great Ouse and Ancholme as well as coastal waters and small streams which formerly carried freight in small barges.  

A topic under discussion at present is the proposal to incorporate EA navigations into the now established CRT.  Progress has been delayed by several factors, and several times.  In my opinion, it is a great shame that the amalgamation of the two government navigation authorities could not have taken place at the time of the setting up of CRT.  If only it could have been done together – the best of both institutions could have been incorporated – differences acknowledged or even overcome, and we could have all benefited by a new overall look at funding, licensing, resources, environment, development, freight etc.  After all, the technology and commercial acumen exist so we can only hope that a true balance of water management will eventually develop in this country.  

My observations on the Great Ouse were of a very beautiful river, once maintained quite well and certainly with navigation structures  which work for leisure boating, and compatible with angling and conservation issues which the EA is charged with monitoring.  However, hundreds of trees lie fallen and all other undergrowth is unchecked, obscuring many signs (some of safety concern) which will eventually result in hazards to bridges and other structures, and members of the public, not to mention the odd boater and angler.   

Both the Nene and the Ouse (and the Middle Level) are devoid of ‘towpaths’ and where there is a path are more properly called ‘riverside paths’ as there is no possibility of towing on these waters, nor it seems, ever was, at least throughout.  Access and moorings are therefore issues which are of continuous concern.  To this end, the Great Ouse Boating Association have made great strides in obtaining access and agreements for many "moorings" for use by members - with the welcome possibility of visiting boaters being able to join for the purpose of using them.  Well done to them - come along Nene residents - do something similar there please!  Many land owners charge any boat which ties up to their field - however much like an "open space" it might appear.  EA do provide some "visitor moorings", but they are few and far between - and as for services - water and sanitation points are also sadly lacking, although there are some. 

A worrying trend by EA on the small rivers accessible to small craft (canoes, punts, skiffs etc) or small cruisers, are being surreptitiously ‘restored’ – meaning that the water level is being lowered to favour ‘fast water fish’ and their spawning.  This use of the term is seen as in direct opposition to its use by the navigation movement – where restoration generally means control of water levels and depths – usually to achieve a previously navigable status.    

It is perhaps understandable, as the EA is charged with improving the environment, and one measure of the state of rivers is the ‘invertebrate count’ – but also, grants are available from the EU for doing just this.  They seem to do things they can get some money for....

The examples that have come to light so far include the River Ivel, in Bedfordshire, and the Abbey River, a backwater of the Thames in Surrey.  Weirs are being altered, without much consultation, or one might say, without consideration for the effects on heritage, safely or flood (or even low flow).  In the case of the Abbey River, we canoed down atthe time EA contractors were filling up to sections with gravel.  We just about scraped through!  These are to simulate ‘riffles’ – ostensibly to encourage spawning of trout etc... on sections of river that have clearly not had such spawning since medieval times!  Canoe Britain is very concerned, because the channels of consultation through EA Navigation personnel were not consulted, and we (IWA Navigation Committee) have supported them on reprimanding EA on this work.

Perhaps the worrying thing regarding the progress of ‘combining’ the river authorities, is that while the delays continue, a ‘back-log’ of maintenance is building up (remember Fraenkel, 1975 anyone?). I’m sure that staff, in their despondency, if only over reduced funding, are taking advantage of the future ‘take-over’ – it won’t be their worry for much longer.

No, let’s hope it won’t – but as a result, a much larger ‘dowry’ should be sought to bring EA waters up to the standard of CRT..... This is of course somewhat different to what we were usually campaigning for with BW!

So, if you ever meet your MP – PLEASE try to mention EA – get the navigations sorted out!

You can read more about why your Association continues to push for the EA navigations to be transferred, with an appropriate funding package, to the third sector here. You can also read here about our call for Members and supporters, particularly those living in constituencies containing an EA navigation, to help the campaign by writing to their MPs and how to go about it