Countryside Exchange – Blackwater Estuary, England
1999 United Kingdom Countryside Exchange
Blackwater Estuary – Executive Summary
The Blackwater Estuary is a relatively rural and modestly populated area situated 80km from central London. Much of its coastline was claimed in the past from the sea. The land is subsiding and the sea level rising, threatening serious loss of intertidal habitat. These losses will have a significant impact upon biodiversity, landscape, communities and the rural economy. The cost of maintaining the defences is becoming prohibitive. Managed retreat, while offering a range of potential benefits, runs against society’s culture and is potentially very unpopular.
Observations and Key Issues
The people of the estuary are very connected to the place but their perceptions range from an empathy with the sea to the sea as the enemy. The overwhelming impression is that these diverse feelings cause tensions and create barriers that prevent local people fully involving themselves in the life of their communities. No evidence was observed of local communities actively exploring and assessing local needs themselves.
Perceptions of Managed Retreat
There is a lot of confusion over what managed retreat is all about. Several farmers expressed concern about the possible break down of the social fabric of the community if managed retreat was to occur on a larger scale. There was a strong feeling that not all stakeholders had been involved in the consultation process. A Parish Council Chairman estimated that 20% of his parish would understand and support the principles of managed retreat whilst the other 80% were not interested.
Economic Value of Saltmarsh
Managed retreat isn’t just a matter of productive farmland versus unproductive saltmarsh. There may be many situations where sites could continue to deliver an economic return to the landholder, whilst maintaining flood defences and providing positive providing wildlife gain.
Assessment of Trial Sites
The managed setback projects visited appear to be well*conceived and designed, with adequate spatial diversity, and flexible success criteria. These sites are showcase projects for the UK, and set an example of progressive coastal environmental management for the future.
Barriers to Further Implementation
- Funding Issues – The schemes available are not attracting farmers
- Funding Issues – There is limited flexibility to allow other options
- Regulations – The application process is very complex and local interests can be missed
- Regulations – There are conflicting European designations
Is sea level rise the only problem?
- Flood control is nothing new in the area.
- People universally preferred flooding fields to relocating structures to provide room for managed retreat.
- The shoreline of the estuary has been steepened, smoothed, and dramatically reduced in length.
- Mudflats and Marshes are eroding at an alarming rate.
- Changes in the watershed are increasing the likelihood of flooding from the land.
Recommendations and The Future
Cut Through the Red Tape
- Develop realistic, flexible and well promoted agricultural incentive schemes.
- There needs to be an agricultural incentive scheme, developed through a full consultation conducted by the MAFF, that will tempt farmers into signing up. It should offer options – either a higher grant rate for 10 years, or a reduced rate for 20 years – and should be time-limited to encourage making the decision to join.
- On sites where managed retreat is given a high priority the Environment Agency should have compulsory purchase powers when a farmer refuses to enter into the revised grant scheme.
- It should also be made clear that farmers entering a scheme and undertaking a managed retreat should retain title to the land. If instead they rely on ageing defences that later fail, land reverting to intertidal area will become Crown property.
- Simplify the consultation process for managed retreat implementation
- The legal framework should be altered to streamline the number of consents required. A co-operative, strategic approach in the consultation process might allow consensus to be reached between the agencies concerned at an earlier stage, and ensure that decisions are consistent.
Involve Local Interests in the Consultation Process
- It would be beneficial to consult widely with local groups in the area long before a project gets as far as planning consent.
- Coastal management should be an inclusive process. Organisations such as the Community Council should be encouraged to develop a local needs assessment process.
- A Visioning Event should be investigated.
- A term should be found for ‘managed retreat’ that is more positive and readily understood by the broader community.
Provide Better Interpretation of Managed Retreat Sites
- There is a need for information for folks visiting sites explaining the benefits of managed retreat, how the projects have developed and the species of wildlife that can be observed.
- Additional information boards should be mounted in places where it is not possible to interact with a guide or steward.
- Volunteer wardens should be valued, and utilised to publicise the managed retreat sites.
Investigate Other Economic Benefits of Saltmarsh
- There may be scope to develop some of the traditional industries, such as oyster growing or salt production, on managed retreat sites. Pilot projects have reached a planning stage and these should be implemented.
- There may also be opportunities to offer specialist wildfowling or bird watching tours. There is an opportunity to develop community run enterprises that would be viable in the long term and could contribute to other community projects.
- Some money from the existing MAFF Saltmarsh Scheme programs should be redirected so that landholders and farmers are given positive incentives to diversify into saltmarsh-friendly industries.
- There could also be indirect economic benefits to the community from managed retreat.
Develop a Strategic Plan for Managed Retreat Implementation
- The next phase of managed retreat projects should be implemented in a tiered fashion, allowing relevant data from current experimental sites to be incorporated into future tiers.
- Individual project objectives and goals should continue to be flexible, and a long-term commitment by project sponsors to detailed monitoring, adaptive management, and fine-tuning of project sites will be essential. Multiple performance indicators are recommended, using assessment techniques developed along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts and adapted to the U.K.
Other Ways to Approach Flooding Issues in the Blackwater
- Focus on stopping erosion attributable to armoured shorelines
- Backfill borrow ditches dug on the seaward side of levees.
- Restore the natural erosion resistance qualities of the estuary.
- Consider thin-layer deposition of dredged sediments on marsh surfaces as a means of raising the elevation of existing marshes
- Use the Blackwater Estuary to develop and conduct a training program for professional engineers and environmental scientists
©2002 Glynwood Center