Environment Agency Area Director Lesley Worswick pens her latest column for us, looking back on a tumultuous year of challenges and achievements and forward to 2022.
The end of the year is almost upon us and as 2022 rolls around, I have found myself reflecting on the last 12 months and the hurdles we have all had to overcome.
Much like 2020, it has again been an unprecedented year of events. The year started with something of a bang as Storm Christoph swept across the North West on January 18-21.
In those three short days, levels of water in the River Mersey broke records. In Didsbury at the vast flood storage reservoir, which is capable of holding up to 310 Olympic size swimming pools of water, the distance between safety and a threat to people’s lives was a matter of centimetres. But, the defences there held firm and protected around 3,000 properties.
Throughout the incident, our teams and our partners, in the police and fire services, local authorities and utility companies to name but a few, took a ‘think big, act early approach’ meaning we were able to protect more than 24,000 properties and businesses through a combination of operating defences and assets.
We were also able to warn more than 6,000 people in advance of Christoph’s arrival through our flood warning service.
Our changing climate means we are going to experience more of the types of storms we have seen this year. Hard defences are still key to our response, but we need to also look to what nature has already given us to really combat it.
I love seeing nature-based solutions being used to reduce flood risk (alongside all the other environmental benefits they can bring) and working for the Environment Agency, I’m surrounded by others who feel the same. Alongside our partners including Moors for the Future, The Mersey Forrest and local Woodland and Wildlife Trusts, we are aiming to leave nature in a better state than we found it.
This includes using leftover materials to further bolster flood protection across Greater Manchester.
A good example this year was timber trunks collected during construction of the £56m Rochdale and Littleborough and £40m Radcliffe and Redvales flood schemes going to Smithills in Bolton. Here, log barriers and tree planting help to store water in upland areas in order to reduce flood risk for communities downstream.
Recent studies have shown that slowing the flow of water on the Smithills Estate, through measures such as leaky barriers, can reduce flood risk by up to 27 per cent.
Reusing timber from flood scheme construction will contribute to the creation of at least another four leaky barriers on the site.
Flooding was not the only incident our dedicated teams have dealt with this year. Pollution, dry weather and environmental incidents, such as fish kills, have all played their part and given us a number of hurdles to overcome.
More than 76,000 incidents were reported to the Environment Agency’s national incident management service. One every seven minutes, 24 hours a day.
That figure can seem overwhelming but there have also been some environmental success stories over the last 12 months.
FISH RESTOCKING: All fish are reared at the Agency’s fish farm.
We hit our target of better protecting 300,000 homes on time and on budget, began the new £5.2bn flood programme, and put the National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management into action.
This means we are now on track to start better protecting 336,000 properties, including homes, businesses, schools and hospitals across England by 2027 with more than £42m invested in over 50 schemes across Greater Manchester, Mersey and Cheshire in the first year of the new programme.
We have been breathing life back into our blue and green spaces with projects such as the Natural Course Bringing the River Irk to Life (BRIL) scheme and Mayfield, that are helping to transform our rivers into thriving waterways that will bring people and nature together.
The Mayfield Project is particularly exciting. Phase One of this significant project involves the creation of a new inner-city river parkland delivering notable improvement across a 365 metre stretch of the River Medlock as part of the £1.4bn scheme.
Plans for the development include the creation of a 6.5 acre new inner city parkland surrounding part of the River Medlock, a heavily adapted river targeted for improvement by the EA. Once completed, it will deliver 11 acres of public space and the creation of a new wetlands area delivering better opportunities for nature and allowing the river to return to a more natural state.
Modelling and design work for the parkland has also ensured the altered parkland landscape can accommodate future potential flood water utilising, where possible, nature based solutions.
These solutions will reduce flood risk and improve Manchester climate change adaptation efforts.
The Mayfield Project is a prime example of us working with a developer to achieve our goal of shaping a cleaner and more resilient society and we welcome the opportunity if other developers wish to approach us to discuss how we can assist them in achieving their own environmental goals.
Our fisheries team have also been hard at work pro-actively targeting those who feel they can get away with fishing illegally.
We delivered our annual coarse fish closed season campaign in the spring to remind anglers not to fish on rivers, safeguarding spawning coarse fish – vital in protecting the future of our fisheries.
In the summer, patrols were undertaken by our officers as part of a month-long enforcement campaign to crack down on illegal fishing and poaching.
The campaign, named Operation LUNGFISH, was launched on July 23 and ran until the end of August. The aim of the campaign was to detect licence evasion and other illegal fishing, such as the use of unauthorised traps.
During this period, officers across the country checked a total of 4,500 licences which also saw drones and specialist surveillance equipment used to detect illegal activity on waterways. The campaign achieved high detection rates with 839 offence notices issued for fisheries-related offences.
We have also been helping our local fish populations across Greater Manchester ‘keep on swimming’ with almost 28,000 fish released into Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire waters throughout December.
A further 3,000 coarse fish including chub and dace will be released into the River Tame in the New Year.
Releasing fish into our rivers is one of the many things we do to develop and enhance fisheries and encourage restoration. All the fish are reared at the Environment Agency’s national fish farm near Calverton, Nottinghamshire, using funding from rod licence sales.
No end of year round-up would be complete without a reference to that scourge of our environment, illegal waste.
This year, our Enforcement Team, who work around the clock to crack down on waste crime, have successfully prosecuted a number of individuals throughout 2021.
The fact remains that we will not tolerate waste crime and I think it speaks volumes that our Enforce- ment Team have used 2021 to demonstrate, without a shadow of a doubt, that we are still working actively and effectively against those who think they have the right to pollute our environment.
It’s no coincidence that at the end of another year, many of us will be reflecting back and gaining new per- spective, much like the protagonist in that classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.
Gaining new appreciation for our environment, something we take for granted everyday, can help us understand how important it really is.
We have quite the job ahead of us if we are to leave our wonderful world in a better state than when we found it, but I have hope. And for me, hope is knowing that I can do something.
This Christmas, I will be looking for sustainable solutions such as recyclable wrapping paper, reusable decorations, including homemade (a great way to keep the kids occupied once the schools break up) and eco-friendly cards. These small changes make a lot less waste to ensure that this Christmas does not cost the earth!
Until next time, I would like to wish you all a safe and very merry Christmas and a happy and positive New Year.