Bubbling over the surface

A serious flooding incident is a sure fire way of getting surface water management on to the front pages. WWT editor Natasha Wiseman took a trip to Blackpool to find out what is needed from the industry's experts

The Queen's announcement of the new Flood & Water Management Bill on 19 November may not have excited party leaders much, they were still quibbling over the never-ending saga of MPs expenses, but the Biblical scenes of devastation beaming from the north of England certainly brought the politicians to town. The scenes were dramatic. Householders had to break through their roofs to escape floodwaters in Cockermouth; a policeman was drowned in Workington after swollen rivers caused six bridges to collapse and water and power supplies were widely disrupted.

Perhaps mindful of George Bush's poor show in New Orleans, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, waded into the region. And speaking from Cockermouth, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said that flood defences that had been improved to a 1-in-100 year event in 2005 were experiencing conditions akin to 1-in-1,000 years.

Rainfall of 314mm had arrived in 24 hours and the Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith had to defend the flood warnings the EA had issued. However, there is light in these grim tales - the water industry can hope that the synchronicity of the flooding and the Bill may mean its recommendations are pushed further up Parliament's 'to do' list prior to the election.

Rebuilding and repairing an estimated 18 bridges and assessing hundreds more will certainly keep structural engineers busy in the immediate aftermath. Flood defences and drainage systems for flood hit towns might need to be re-examined in the light of this extreme event.

United Utilities may wish to rethink its response to a question about a new drainage system for Kendal from the town's MP. "It's way down the list of priorities," he was told recently.

The very good news is that in Carlisle, where 3,000 homes were flooded four years ago, a range of new measures seemed to have mostly held back the tide on this occasion. This is the news that needs to reach policymakers and public - we can fix this, but it might cost you.

This was the message coming from the combined forces of the Wastewater Planning Users Group (WaPUG) and Ciwem's Urban Drainage Group, meeting together for the first time in Blackpool on 11-13 November. Delegates were keen to explain that surface water management isn't rocket science. It is clear that a lot more of it will be needed, and although the engineering know-how and modelling technology is chartered territory, the complexities at the strategic level are less easily navigated. Most worryingly, the Bill says that local authorities (LAs) will have responsibility for surface water flooding. However, if the delegates from LAs I met in Blackpool were representative, local government does not appear to have any of the skills required to deliver this, at all.

Whole departments for surface water management will have to be built from scratch.

Partnerships
Strong partnerships will be needed between the Environment Agency, LAs, consultants and other stakeholders if a national flood strategy is to be rolled out effectively. David Balmforth, technical director at MWH, told me that a more tailored approach was needed with partnerships in local areas. It was for consultants to fill the skill gap, he said.

Even where expertise does exists, at a technical level a better understanding is needed. Richard Allitt, of the consultancy RAA, said that there was a big problem in getting the stakeholders to understand the different skill sets that were required: for example, river modellers may not be privy to the specialist knowledge bank of urban modellers and vice versa.

Allitt warned that the lack of a common standard on understanding flood events meant that there was a risk of "cherry picking" parts of a surface water management plan (SWMP), when actually the whole plan would need to be implemented to be most effective.

A vibrant workshop aiming to explore the dichotomy at the heart of the Water Framework Directive was held by David Balmforth. Delegates had a chance to contribute to a dialogue about how the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which demands higher water-quality, will inevitably raise carbon emissions.

Will the quality of treated water be reduced? Are combined sewers a thing of the past? Do we need to reinvent the urban water cycle? Balmforth hopes to take participant contributions forward to better inform future policy decisions. He told me that the outcomes for SWMPs should be diverse, including biodiversity, amenities for people and green public space: "Creativity in urban design is what is needed most," he said.

Climate change underscores any measures that might be taken. The rainfall in Cumbria was unprecedented and may or may not be attributable to carbon emission induced climate change.

What is known is that more 'freak weather' or high intensity rainfall events can be anticipated with climate change. The 2009 floods illustrate graphically how far the UK is from having an infrastructure
with the resilience to withstand them.

As far as surface water management goes, stakeholders have many tools in the box. These include tightening urban planning regulations, restructuring wastewater infrastructure, turning green spaces to blue and modelling catchments. Ultimately, the UK needs a bolder sense of urgency if it is to develop an infrastructure fit for a changing climate and environmental landscape. It is for water engineers and
the entire industry to unite behind the common themes to ensure that their voices are heard in Westminster and beyond.

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