Kathriona Devereux: There goes the Bride... such a shame to lose Blackpool river

Kathriona Devereux looks at the environmental impact of a €20 million flood relief scheme of the Bride
Kathriona Devereux: There goes the Bride... such a shame to lose Blackpool river

VANISHING HABITAT: The River Bride will now disappear into a culvert as part of a flood relief scheme.

AND so Blackpool bids farewell to the River Bride.

The river will no longer flow through the village on its way to meet the Lee. The recently announced go-ahead for a €20 million flood relief scheme of the Bride is going to essentially remove the river from the centre of Blackpool.

The river will disappear into a drain (or ‘culvert’, which sounds so much nicer), and with it much of the wildlife and biodiversity that the river supports.

This is going to have a devastating effect on the local otter and trout populations and the biodiversity of the area in general. The Office of Public Works agrees. In its own Environmental Impact Assessment of the project, it states: “Impact on aquatic species and their habitat, namely brown trout, lamprey and eel, is significant due to the permanent loss of in-stream habitat as a result of culverting, sediment traps and maintenance regiments.

“Impact on otters is also considered very significant as the culverting of an extensive length of river potentially results in loss of foraging habitat and increased severance between the Bride and the River Lee.”

The inclusion of an “otter ledge” and light wells within the proposed culvert network ignores the fact that otters rely on fish who rely on insects, larvae and crustaceans, who rely on plants, algae, etc. Unfortunately, a ledge is not going to replace a healthy ecosystem and the OPW report concludes that even with these mitigation measures, there will be a “permanent significant negative impact” on the otters.

Of course, for the people who live with the looming threat of flooding of their homes and livelihoods, discussion about the fate of otters seems trivial. However, given that we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, it seems to me we should be striving to prevent environmental destruction while still protecting properties from flooding.

Should the cost benefit analysis of large scale infrastructure projects be adjusted to count the many and varied benefits of the natural environment?

Inland Fisheries Ireland expressed a strong desire to maintain the Bride in Orchard Court as an open channel, but it seems to have come down to a choice of tall flood walls or a river ecosystem. And nobody likes tall walls.

But could nature-based flood solutions offer the best of both worlds? Restoring nature to protect humans from flooding seems like a win for biodiversity and a win for humans.

The town of Pickering in North Yorkshire in the UK is a positive example. It was flooded four times in nine years between 1999 and 2007, the last event caused £7 million worth of damage. Local authorities proposed a £20 million concrete flood wall through the town but the locals objected that it would destroy the character and heritage of the town and ruin tourism.

The civic society of Pickering, working with Oxford academics and other government agencies, explored nature-based solutions to slow the flow of the river. Forestry Commission staff built 167 leaky dams of logs and branches, 187 lesser obstructions of bales of heather in gullies and smaller drains, and planted 72 acres of woodland upstream.

An embankment upriver acts like a giant sink, holding the water in a flood plain and releasing it slowly through a culvert.

The project was completed in 2015 just three months before the Boxing Day floods which devastated Leeds, York and other towns in northern England. Pickering was unscathed. Its £2 million nature-based flood relief scheme cost a tenth of the proposed concrete wall and did the job perfectly.

Of course, all river catchment systems are different, which is why it is important that research is undertaken to understand places with significant flood risk and the effects that natural water retention measures (NWRM) may have on them.

The OPW is co-funding Irish projects looking at natural water retention measures (NWRM) which aim to address flooding by restoring and maintaining ecosystems and natural features of water bodies. This could include woodlands on flood plains, agricultural and upland modifications, instream structures like large woody debris dams, storage ponds or non-floodplain wetlands.

A pilot project called SloWaters is underway on a farm in Macroom and is examining how fields, agricultural land and woodland areas can temporarily hold water in extreme rain events, reducing and slowing the amount of water going downstream to towns and cities.

This type of flood management means a new type of land management. Perhaps looking at agricultural land not just for its food productivity potential but also for its flood mitigation potential.

A national land use review and plan was included in the programme for government and is considered critical for taking a holistic view of agricultural, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation and other environmental issues that need to be tackled.

A new National Land Use Plan could incentivise different forms of land use and may mean instead of spending millions on concrete and steel for flood walls, you could spend the money upstream to help farms and woodlands act as sponges and slow the flow of rivers.

Climate change-related extreme weather events will bring more dramatic deluges in the future. How we manage excess water during these extreme events is up to us — nature-based solutions and natural water retention measures are emerging as important and effective tools to help slow the flow and make room for the river.

And the otters will like them too.

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