Wednesday, 5 February 2014

George Monbiot shoots from the hip again

and misses.

In an article entitled "Dredging rivers won't stop floods. It will make them worse", George is surprised to find the Environment agency agreeing with him. They have released a paper on dredging. In it they cleverly state that dredging is carried out "to improve navigation, by increasing depths and straightening channels or "to improve land drainage, particularly by creating artificial channels". So despite the fact that they state that "Dredging is the process of removing silt from the bottom and sides of the river channel", clearing silt from riverbeds and returning them to their original depth, the activity in which they have a twenty year backlog is obviously not dredging.

So, cheered by this unexpected help in his campaign that started with trying to get rid of sheep and seemingly unaware that the whole paper appears to be designed simply to justify the EA's inactivity in dredging over the last twenty years, George launches forth,

"A river's capacity is tiny by comparison to the catchment from which it draws its water. You can increase the flow of a river by dredging, but that is likely to cause faster and more dangerous floods downstream when the water hits the nearest urban bridge (something the residents of towns like Taunton and Bridgwater should be worried about). If you cut it off from its floodplain by turning it into a deep trench, you might raise its capacity from, say, 2% of the water moving through the catchment to 4%. You will have solved nothing while creating a host of new problems."

George, please look at a map of Somerset. Taunton is upstream of the floods. No-one is talking about dredging the Tone upstream of Taunton. The Parrett at Bridgwater is tidal, so at low tide, there is always going to be huge spare capacity in its channel. The burghers of Taunton and Bridgwater can sleep safe in their beds.

Next he posts a litany of excuses by the EA to do nothing:

"1. Massive expense. Once you have started dredging, "it must be repeated after every extreme flood, as the river silts up again".

2. More dangerous rivers: "Removing river bank vegetation such as trees and shrubs decreases bank stability and increases erosion and siltation."

3. The destabilisation of bridges, weirs, culverts and river walls, whose foundations are undermined by deepening the channel: "If the river channels are dredged and structures are not realigned, 'Pinch Points' at structures would occur. This would increase the risk of flooding at the structure." That means more expense and more danger.

4. Destruction of the natural world: "Removing gravel from river beds by dredging leads to the loss of spawning grounds for fish, and can cause loss of some species. Removing river bank soils disturbs the habitat of river bank fauna such as otters and water voles.

1. Dredging started in the C18th. The EA isn't being asked to start dredging, it's being asked to continue dredging. All the rivers draining the Somerset Levels run in man-made channels. No-one is talking about widening them or deepening them. All the residents of the levels want is for the twenty year accumulation of silt to be removed from them.

2. How did the (man-made) banks cope before there were trees growing on them?

3. See point 1.

4. No-one is talking about removing gravel from river beds.

George then goes on to both hit and miss the point in one sentence:

"More trees and bogs in the uplands – reconnecting rivers with their floodplains in places where it is safe to flood (and paying farmers to store water on their fields while the danger passes)"

The first is a good idea, the second is how the Somerset Levels already work, and have worked for centuries. The problem is not that the Levels have flooded: they do that most years and it's how the problem of having more water entering the levels than can drain out is solved. George and the Environment Agency are pointing out that you can't stop the flooding in Somerset by dredging the rivers. This is true, but no-one is asking to stop the flooding, what they want is for the flooding to be less extreme and not to last so long. They want the water to be able to flow more quickly to the sea, like it did in the past, when the man-made rivers and drains of the Levels were properly maintained.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Fair point, if you create a totally artificial environment, like The Somerset Levels or The Netherlands, you've got to keep going.

DBC Reed said...

You are rather missing the point that these floods in Somerset have occurred because there is exceptional rainfall.There is no point in dredging the Parrett if the floodwater is below the river level: look at the pumps on the telly and they're pulling the water up into the river which is ,as you say , tidal so water only goes downstream when the tide goes out.Deepening the drainage channels ("rhines") on the flood plain itself will have nil effect as they're feet under a vast lake.Monbiot's ideas of upland soakaways, more native trees and getting rid of sheep (did you see the programme about the effect of sheep grazing on Easter Island/Rapanui: criminal) still make sense.
This flooding issue is being turned into an attack on the public sector Environment Agency by farmers particularly ,who are dependent on income from the State. Have n't seen the private sector mobilising to help in Somerset.Not much sign of the Invisible Hand .

Mark Wadsworth said...

DBC, o/t but yes I did see the Easter Island programme and when he mentioned the 70,000 sheep, bells started ringing.

Shiney said...

My manufacturing business is in Bridgwater - 250m from the River Parrett, low lying and right next to a (now overflowing) rhine.

The private businesses round here, rather than rent seeking farmers, bought sandbags and emergency pumps and are getting on with it.

Bayard said...

DBCR, I don't think anyone is talking about dredging the ryhnes, they talking about desilting the Parrett and the other drainage channels. Why should the farmers pay for dredging? it isn't just them who would benefit. They pay to desilt the drainage ditches on their own land. It makes sense that whoever owns the rivers and main drainage channels, in this case the EA, should pay for their upkeep. If you read my post again you will see that I pointed out that no-one who knows about the Levels is complaining about flooding per se. You can't stop the Levels flooding, that's what they are designed to do, every time there is exceptional rainfall. But if you don't keep the drainage channels at their intended depth, then those floods will take longer to drain away and so be deeper than they should be.
Just because the EA is a public sector organisation doesn't mean it's beyond reproach. It's hardly an attack to point out they haven't been doing their job properly for the last twenty years. Their attempts to weasel out of it are hardly commendable, either.

"farmers particularly ,who are dependent on income from the State"

and Lord Smith and his merry band of highly-paid EA bureaucrats isn't, then? Anyway, you know that all the public money paid to farmers is captured by the supermarkets in lower farm-gate prices, so that's a non-sequiteur.

Bayard said...

Mark, if you read Jared Diamond's book "Collapse", you will see that Easter Island was ruined by the Easter Islanders, long before Europeans showed up. Not that that justifies it being ruined again, but the fact that sheep are wrong for Easter Island doesn't make them wrong for upland Britain. George just doesn't like sheep and will take any opportunity to put the Moonboot in. He's right about trees though; just a pity he's wrong about so many other things.

Kj said...

This flooding issue is being turned into an attack on the public sector Environment Agency by farmers particularly ,who are dependent on income from the State. Have n't seen the private sector mobilising to help in Somerset.Not much sign of the Invisible Hand.

What on earth are you talking about? Flooding/river maintenance is a public goods problem, which noone has claimed that the private sector would do sh... about unless one private company owned Somerset. There´s noone else than the EA that can be responsible for this.

Bayard: Monbiot will probably go a long way to connect the dots as he see fit regarding use of the uplands, as sheep removal is a first step to making land available for rewilding. But OTOH, maybe it´s not such a bad idea, how much do you actually loose from ditching upland sheep farming in terms of food, both in amount and value?

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, yes, Jared D said that the Easter Islanders only had themselves to blame, and he is right about nearly everything else so I accepted it as true.

But the TV programme seemed to be fairly well researched and he concluded that basically the European settlers had fucked the place up the same as so many others - introduced infectious diseases, carted them off as slaves, put the rest on reservations and did their own bit to deforest the place with their 70,000 sheep.

As to sheep farmers, look, I like mutton and wool and watching sheep dog trials as much as the next man, it's all good, but that is not the point.

That land they are using for sheep farming has alternative uses, i.e. re-wilding. It's a question of the relative merits of each use to society as a whole. If paying a few pence more for my lamb chops or next cardigan means that people don't get flooded out as often, well that is fine by me.

DBC Reed said...

You are not living in the UK where there is now no such thing as a public good: everything health, transport, housing and all the natural monopolies are now privatised or being softened up for privatised monopolies or cartels to take over.
Also a bit of courtesy from a fellow land taxer would n't come amiss .
@B Everything that MW said about the recent Easter Island programme is accurate.Bells started ringing with me when they showed places where even the sheep-cropped grass had been washed away.NB It started off as a luxuriantly forested "tropical island".

Kj said...

DBC: yes but privatization is another issue, you keep hammering the point about the failure of markets that aren´t markets, I fail to make sense of it. I grant you the point that public provision of public goods is obviously failing when the EA spends preciously little on doing actual work as witnessed by a recent post by TS, but that´s not really the farmers or the private sectors fault, but govt/EA, hence a legitimate "attack".

DBC Reed said...

I do not hammer points: you hammer your complete dislike of everything I say even when I support it with quotes from recognised authorities which you call name dropping.
It is not me calling things markets when they are n't markets: it is the Coalition and the dreary Thatcherite consensus
which has destroyed the UK mixed economy and capitalism as well.
You cannot have a market in water
in this country when there is only one set of mains pipes and branches going to people's houses: nobody has a choice of taps above the sink. The numbskulls say this is still susceptible to the inestimable benefits of competition .Which is bollocks.Henry George said you could not have any meaningful market competition with railways and favoured nationalisation.We have denationalised and the railway is i)more subsidised ii)more expensive for tickets.Nowhere is off bounds to these fuckwits who have now privatised the Royal Mail.So what you are talking about I can't imagine.
The EA has probably loused up because we have had the most rain on record for December and January.
I do not think the wonder of the markets could have done much better.

Kj said...

DBC: well exactly, you can´t have any meaningful competition in water pipes, and flood control and all that can only be arranged for by government, it´s the most extreme example of a public good, noone is claiming anything else. Adam Smith wouldn certainly not claim otherwise either. It´s not "market failure", it´s government failure for something only government can do.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Kj, DBC, the way I see it, DBC's original comment "Haven't seen the private sector mobilising to help in Somerset. Not much sign of the Invisible Hand." was meant sarcastically, and the whole discussion has spiralled since then.

There's no dispute that flooding can only be countered by some kind of collective action - and the collective has failed miserably here - the questions are
a) at what level, local voluntary group of farmers/home owners., local council, national government?
b) who should pay for it or be made to pay for it?

DBC Reed said...

The point is that the EA cannot be said to have "failed" when the Somerset rainfall in December and January was off a scale that could reasonably be anticipated The area was bound to flood and would have flooded whether private sector or public sector was trying Canute like to hold it back.(By contrast the almost completely private sector housing supply industry has managed to be overwhelmed by demand which has built up gradually and could be anticipated from obviously available data e.g house prices.)

Mark Wadsworth said...

DBC, I think they have, but let's leave that to Bayard to decide, he is the expert here.

Returning to your favourite topic, one of the major rivers there, the Huntspill, was created by the government during WW2 to funnel water to a munitions works, had the added bonus of improving drainage.

Bayard said...

"NB It started off as a luxuriantly forested "tropical island"."

but was converted into a near desert by the Easter Islanders themselves cutting down all the trees, without there being a sheep within thousands of miles.

"The point is that the EA cannot be said to have "failed" when the Somerset rainfall in December and January was off a scale that could reasonably be anticipated"

No that's not the point and, if you bothered to read my post and my comment above instead of shooting from the hip like George M, you would see that no-one who knows anything about the Levels is saying that the EA "failed" because there was flooding. What they failed to do, for the fourth time, was adequately maintain the drainage channels so that the inevitable flooding was deeper and lasted longer than it would have if they had done their job properly.

BTW the authorities are indeed acting like Canute, (who didn't try to hold the tide back, he let it wet his feet to show that he couldn't) by looking at the floods and saying "nothing we can do here, it's all down to Nature, can't fight Nature, can you" and walking away.

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, agreed on floods, but I have to spring to the defence of the Easter Islanders, yes, they appear to have chopped down most of the trees, but it was still a self-sufficient thriving society until the wicked Imperialists turned up.

DBC Reed said...

@B This depth of flooding was n't inevitable. And plenty of people in Somerset are saying the EA failed.

Bayard said...

DBCR, are you now agreeing with me that the depth of flooding was caused by the failure of the EA to dredge the drainage channels?

I have it on good authority (a former leader of Somerset County Council) that in his day he had to keep the EA up to the mark in their dredging duties and that since his lot lost their majority, the incoming Tories never bothered and dredging pretty well ceased. When was that? Oh, about twenty years or so ago.

Of course there will be journalists, ignoramuses, motormouths and politicians who will be blaming the EA for the flooding itself, but the fact that the EA is wrongly blamed for that doesn't mean it is blameless of everything to do with the flooding.

Bayard said...

Oh and slightly O/T, but my brother reports that his fields that were heavily "poached"(the soil compacted, stopping it draining) by having horses on them, now drain freely after a few months of having sheep on them.

DBC Reed said...

Dredging the rivers might have helped a little bit but dredging the "drainage channels"? What are they ?If they do not connect with the rivers, the water just stays there.
Centralising all the flood water in reservoirs like the Huntspill River,a five mile long reservoir once feeding millions of gallons of water into an ordnance factory ,was what was done in the past when the public sector took a leading role in planning, but nowadays its just a matter of scapegoating Smith at the EA and worshipping the private sector which in large scale strategic matters is useless.

Bayard said...

I use the term "drainage channels" as not all the major drains on the Levels are rivers, e.g. The King's Sedgemoor Drain. I agree it's pointless dredging the rhynes, if the high level drains are not also dredged. Lord Smith is not being scapegoated. That is supposed to be why he is paid his large salary: to take responsibility for the EA, its successes and failures. Sure, he's not personally responsible. Whoever decided to stop dredging the main drains to save a few quid is personally responsible, but as the head of the EA, Lord Smith takes the rap: that's what he's paid to do. Anyway, it's not as if he didn't know the dredging had stopped; the inhabitants of the levels had been pointing it out to him for years.