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Eastern Powerhouse: Stop the Wash out and use the water that is being pumped out to sea

Opinion | James Palmer, chair of Eastern Powerhouse

It is 370 years since Cornelius Vermuyden and his Dutch engineers drained the Fens across Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. The rivers, drains and dykes which his men dug have been simultaneously draining the most fertile soil in the country and providing a network of water that allows the farmers to irrigate their crops during the growing season ever since.

James Palmer, chair of Eastern Powerhouse. Picture: Keith Heppell
James Palmer, chair of Eastern Powerhouse. Picture: Keith Heppell

In the winter, excess water is stored in the Ouse Washes, creating a vast shallow lake that is pumped into the North Sea via the River Great Ouse through pumping stations that are now reliably powered by electric motors.

To those that live and work in the Fens, this is the natural order of things. The drainage boards that are responsible for sections of the Fens make sure that dykes, ditches and culverts are clear of debris and weeds. They do everything within their power to enable the Fens to be kept dry, in their man-made condition.

There is no doubt that the Fens are a remarkable feat of engineering and to see the difference between the Fens today and the landscape before drainage, one needs only to travel to Wicken Fen and walk through the pre-Vermuyden wetlands. An experience I would thoroughly recommend.

Water security is a question for our times. As I write this, on the back of an extremely wet winter, the water pounds against the window yet again, the ditch opposite my house has been cleared by my local drainage board and the water runs through it, into the Roman-dug lode across the fields before it joins the Ouse at Ely.

It is difficult to ascertain just how much water is being pumped into away but some sources say that during a wet winter, the equivalent to the whole of Rutland Water is pumped into the North Sea every 10 days. That’s up to 12 Rutland Waters per winter. What is certain is that the pumping station at St Germans alone has the capacity to push 100 cubic metres per second through its pipes. For context, the average home in the UK uses 11.4 cubic metres of water per month.

Whatever the exact amount of fresh water is heading to Dogger Bank, it is a vast amount. If only there was something we could do to store this incredible waste.

Anglian Water is planning new reservoirs in the Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire Fens and these will certainly add to water security. They are to be welcomed. Large reservoirs, by their very nature, take up many acres – Rutland Water is 4,200 acres – and can take many years to build, so what could be done instead?

Well, why not build a network of small reservoirs on agricultural land adjacent to all those drains, dykes and rivers? Farmers could be compensated for their land use and for overseeing the maintenance of these independent storage facilities which could be constructed at minimal impact to the environment and at minimal impact to the wider population. Most large farms in the Fens already have at least one reservoir and most farm managers are highly experienced in reservoir management.

Surely the Environment Agency could create a plan to hold excess water in reservoirs across the Fens? After all, the Environment Agency knows exactly how to build a reservoir as they have an information page on the government website which says it takes two years from concept to commissioning a new reservoir.

In a world where the Chatteris reservoir may not be delivered before 2045, two years is space rocket-speed of delivery. Of course, all these new reservoirs could not only hold water but be designed with the environment in mind, allowing for the enhancement of wildlife habitats in the industrial agriculture setting of the Fens. Each one could hold 378,500 cubic metres of water, that’s enough to supply 2,800 homes per year. All from water that was once pumped out to sea.

Now that is water management.

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