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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Why our roads are always flooded – and it’s not too much rain

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OVER recent years, there has been an increase of what weather and flood forecasters blithely describe as ‘localised flooding’.  In recent months the occurrence has reached epidemic proportions, such that in our part of mid-Suffolk residents become concerned at a forecast of three or four hours of rainfall. This can result in roads becoming impassable due to the formation of large puddles which may conceal wheel-breaking potholes.  In wet spells of two or three days, these floods form semi-permanent features. It is not due to an increase in rainfall (which in any case is one of the lowest in the country) so what is the cause? I can offer the following suggestions.

•         Deteriorating land drainage:  Farming and drainage practices have been evolving in recent decades including enlargement of fields, removal of ditches and the installation of field drains. Couple this with the increasing size and weight of farm vehicles, changes from deep-ploughing and cropping patterns, and we have a very different land/soil interface from say 40 years ago.  The accompanying decrease of farm labour has meant that maintenance and clearance of drains has been neglected, and the result is water logging.

•         Lack of river maintenance:  Re-organisation of river management and decrease in staff numbers has had a major effect on what maintenance takes place and how it is carried out (if at all). The decline of Internal Drainage Boards in areas like the Fens and Somerset Levels has had a detrimental effect, not least because of the loss of local knowledge and experience. Maintenance of main rivers and embankments, especially dredging and weed clearance, has decreased, recently exacerbated by introduction of poorly reasoned attempts at conservation and so-called ‘environmental management’ and re-wilding. Once again, all-important flood pathways and water disposal capacity have been lost. The big idea that more ‘natural’ catchments would slow down run-off and increase soil-water storage is just not happening: instead surface water discharge appears to be more rapid than before and of higher volume. 

•         Flood control structures.  Historically, river control structures including mill diversions, lock gates and weirs were put in place along even minor rivers.  Many of these are now redundant, and the decline in staffing levels has meant that in many cases the structures are non-operable. It may even be the case that knowledge of the existence and purpose of these structures has been lost. In my area, some gate structures along the River Stour and its tributary the Brett are left open or closed during flood events because there are no operating rules to follow, or no staff to assign to these duties.

•         Lack of road gulley clearance: This is probably the major contributory factor to the increasing frequency and impact of road flooding. Local councils have seemingly reduced their road maintenance budgets to a bare minimum. Roadside verges are allowed to build up and drainage cuts to take off water from roads to ditches and drains become blocked. I know of cases where residents frequently have to clear out these channels alongside roads adjacent to their property to minimise water flowing down the road. Build-up of leaves is a seasonal problem which is very indifferently managed. Culverts taking minor streams and ditches under roads are often neglected as ownership and responsibility for maintenance is unclear; they are prime locations for flooding because  of blockage or collapse. 

•         More development control: Even minor developments now require a flood risk assessment to be submitted to the Planning Agencies before they can go ahead, and the proliferation of housing developments has meant that in the last 20 or 30 years, there are countless new flood detention and storage structures. The responsibility for monitoring the performance and maintenance of these structures within the river system is poorly defined. The basic design principle is to reduce the immediate impact of relatively common events, say one in ten years. If rainfall exceeds this level of severity, the control feature is nullified. There is little or no monitoring of performance so nobody can know if these structures work, so the development control aspect of local flood management is just a bureaucratic and theoretical exercise.

The above concerns relate to simple and unglamorous tasks requiring on-the-ground manpower rather than computer-orientated solutions, but they are absolutely essential. As a council tax payer, I feel it is up to the public to exert pressure whenever possible on their MPs, the Environment Agency, local authorities, road agencies and Defra to deal with the problem in a concerted manner as a matter of urgency.  In my opinion, concentrating on basic issues rather than fanciful theorising about re-greening, re-wilding and carbon reduction would be much more useful and appreciated by the public.

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James Dent
James Dent
James Dent FRMetS worked for many years in various aspects of meteorology and hydrology in UK and internationally. He has been engaged on long-term consultancies for the World Meteorological Organisation and the Met Office.

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