IWA launches attack on Environment Agency

August 2017 - Whilst it is rare to the point of vanishing to see the Inland Waterways Association criticise the Canal & River Trust it has no similar compunction about attacking the Environment Agency, especially over its East Anglian waterways, as Peter Underwood explains.

The IWA has not signed a 'Memorandum of Understanding' with the Environment Agency (EA) and is desperate to see its waterways run by its friends at the C&RT, so it suits the organisation to be able to declare that an 'EA Waterway is Not Fit for Purpose' as it does in its current newsletter.

However, there is little doubt that the organisation is right to make the attack after IWA boaters very clearly showed that one of the EA's Fenland waterways is not fully navigable, despite it being a statutory navigation.

This July, the cruiser Marie II with Lois and Roy Parker and narrow boat Olive Emily with Richard Bramley, Eddy Edwards and John Revell successfully navigated the Old Bedford River from the tidal river at Salters Lode to the current head of navigation, Welches Dam lock, a distance of 14 miles for the second time this year, but it took a large scale and expensive special effort by the EA to enable them to do so and the two boats had to return by the same route as non tidal access to the Old Bedford ended 11 years ago when EA piled the entrance to Welches Dam lock.

The IWA has thanked EA staff who made this trip a success and say the proposed dates had been fixed well in advance with EA (Waterways) who had then consulted other parts of EA. EA (Water Resources) had asked the local Middle Level Commissioners lock keeper to put more water into the non tidal river which made the normally tricky access from the narrow tidal stream much easier.

Despite that the EA tried to persuade them to call off the whole cruise to be called off or delay it until October citing concerns from its fisheries division about low dissolved oxygen from "wind blown accumulations of decaying algae" in one section of the river, claiming that navigating through this in the two boats might give rise to a "significant risk of an environmental (fish distress / kill) incident."

Showing commendable determination, the boaters decided that 'a proportionate response to this concern would be to continue the planned trip and assess the situation when they reached there' as the problem appeared to be very localised around the village of Welney.

As the boats approached Welney the crews found a short stretch of foul smelling, floating rotting material. They were met by two helpful EA staff and it was decided that the narrow boat could proceed very slowly and cautiously along the middle of the channel under their close supervision. The cruiser was stuck and so it was pulled through the weed by ropes from the narrow boat again under EA's close watch.

The IWA describes reaching Welches Dam lock as a 'bittersweet occasion'. It's report says: “It is an attractive location with a fine lock side cottage close to the extensive RSPB Ouse Washes nature reserve. The residents in the cottage were delighted to see the boats.

“What a shame that EA stanked off the lock in 2006. Although EA claimed at the time that piling the entrance to the lock was to prevent water leakage through the gates, this is misleading. The piles do not extend across the full face of the lock entrance leaving a gap of about five feet, which just stops boats using the lock.

“Restoring Welches Dam lock to full navigation would not be rocket science nor would restoring the short distance of Horseways channel which connects the Old Bedford to the Middle Level and then to the rest of the system. A single lock needs to be lengthened and modernised, something C&RT and IWA's WRG do all the time. The short section of Horseways Channel needs to be re-lined to prevent leaks.”

The IWA insists the Old Bedford River is not a dead-end waterway leading nowhere but part of a long-established route connecting the Middle Level and the rest of the canal and river system.

It says it needs to be restored to full navigation then it would make an interesting cruising ring. It has been navigable since 1637, well before the main canal era started, it is a statutory navigation and it needs to be maintained.

The wider politics of the cruise becomes evident at the end of the report which says: “IWA believes that responsibility for navigation matters on rivers currently managed by EA should be transferred to C&RT.

“No one would claim C&RT is perfect but a major advantage is that C&RT has the ability to raise funds and invest with far more flexibility and speed than EA can achieve with its multi functional systems, competing and, at times, conflicting priorities and complex organisation.

“Waiting four months for another part of EA to clear an obvious obstruction to navigation and general environmental hazard is not in anyone's interest, least of all the residents of Welney and those who walk, fish, collect eels, and occasionally boat along the river.

Photos: (1st) Marie II and Olive Emily at Welches Dam lock (Photo by Eddy Edwards), (2nd) Marie II stuck in floating weed and algae at Welney (Photo by John Revell).

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