The Environment Agency’s skills and resources have been put to the test over the past 12 months as the UK weather defies all patterns of normality, lurching from severe drought to flooding.
December was another wet month throughout the Midlands with rainfall recordings 178% above the long term average. These high levels mean that the soils remain fully saturated across the region.
Finding out what the agency’s role has been in coping with the deluge and how it has been advising farmers under these severe conditions, was the focus of a meeting of the Guild in the Midlands, reports branch chairman, Julie Mate.
Richard Cross (left), Forecasting and Modelling Manager, gave a valuable insight into how the Environment Agency uses Met Office data combined with statistical models to predict river levels and therefore give prior warning of flooding. Forecast modelling is constantly improving and the first 15-minute models are now live in some parts of the Midlands, providing forecasts on a far more time-sensitive basis, which is ideal for fast reacting locations.
Keeping the Forecasting Team on its toes, 57 Flood Warnings were issued throughout the region during June, July and August 2012 alone, which meant manning of the office was frequently 24-hours-a-day.
“Warning people about potential flooding in their area has been a major undertaking over the last year and the improved availability of information has undoubtedly helped reduce impacts on infrastructure and property,” said Richard. “The Environment Agency provides a free 24-hour Floodline Warnings Direct service which allows anyone to receive warnings by phone, text, email, fax or paper,” he explained. “In some area, we also warn people using sirens and loud hailers.
“Other places to get the flood updates include the Environment Agency’s own website (www.environment-agency.gov.uk/flood) Ceefax and, of course, local weather, news and travel bulletins.”
Well known to farmers across the Midlands and a former dairy farmer himself, Paul Meakin, Environment Planning Manager (Agriculture), gave a fascinating roundup of the far-reaching work of the Environment Agency which, as far as agriculture is concerned, is largely advisory.
“We are known better for regulation enforcement than our advisory work,” Paul admitted. “But most of my work with farmers involves helping them with decision making, and helping them to tackle and avoid problems.”
This includes working with farmer groups, such as the Warwickshire and Worcestershire Rural Hub Soil Groups which were set up to help farmers successfully manage their soils, and signposting farmers to funding sources for farm installations.
“Contrary to what farmers might think, we are not out to get them,” he insisted. “We would much rather farmers came to us if they think they might have a problem and are very happy to visit them about a new installation or farm practice. Our guys will give them the x, y and z, say, on slurry lagoon management, a water capture system or fuels storage that will do the job,” he pointed out.
Top of the ‘can do better’ list for farmers includes inappropriate field management causing soil runoff combined with poor management of nutrients leading to diffuse pollution; sub-standard farm structures resulting in pollution incidents; and poor practice in the storage and usage of pesticides leading to incidents of watercourse and groundwater contamination.
“Each year we are losing an estimated 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil from land in England and Wales, and leaking nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphorus, into our natural water systems,” explained Paul. “This type of diffuse pollution is a real problem and has been significantly compounded by this year’s high rainfall.
“For farmers, it’s simply money down the drain. Yet, with a few simple changes in farm practice to reduce the run off – for instance, by cultivating land against the gradient, by loosening the topsoil after a maize harvest, by introducing silt collection ponds near to arable fields, or by using earlier maturing crop varieties – the problems can be greatly reduced.”
Getting to grips with these issues is not an option, Paul warned: “If we don’t and fail to achieve the targets set under the Water Framework Directive, then it’s only a matter of time before other measures and fines will be brought in.”
Members and Friends of the Guild at the event welcomed the way Richard Cross and Paul Meakin had drawn back the curtain on the many challenges that have faced the Environment Agency over the last year, and thanked Helen Brothwell and the AHDB for providing the Stoneleigh Park venue.