Sharing the love – working toward multiple benefits

Hardly a day goes by without me either hearing or mentioning the term “multiple benefits” in conversations about improving our rivers.  Is it the latest big thing or just a case of reinventing the wheel?  I think it is somewhere in between: taking an established common sense approach to achieving shared aims and using it in a new area of our work.

So what are multiple benefits and why are they important?  

It is really simple, so don’t let people blind you with science.  You achieve all or some of what you want for an efficient application of resources.  By working with others they get the same deal.  So a scheme, project, campaign or whatever gets a better return on investment for everyone.  In its simplest form, think of that old chestnut of utility companies all taking it in turns to dig up the road for their work.  Each of them has to pay individually to dig a trench and fill it in again as well as causing repeated disruption to the area.  If they link up and work together they reduce costs, achieve their aims and keep local communities happier with less disruption.

But why apply this thinking to improving our rivers?

I make no apology for raising the obvious issue that publicly funded organisations just don’t have the resources to go it alone these days.  This can be seen as a bad thing, but the real positive is that we need to work in partnership and achieve more for each pound spent.  This in turn makes us more open, transparent and responsive to the needs of local communities and other stakeholders.  We no longer decide what we are going to do because “we know best”.  We are far more flexible in how we achieve the outcome and what it looks like.  That can only be a good thing and it is something that we need to harness.

Also we need to make sure that when we improve rivers that we do it in a way that local communities want and that complements rather than compromises other uses or needs.  Some of the projects we are working on are designed to kick start a process that will need to be supported into the future, so getting this buy-in is essential.  We want people to be reconnected to their environment, to access it and enjoy it.  So let’s (for example) get public open space, a new nature reserve and reduce flood risk to downstream communities at the same time as breathing life into our rivers.  A well thought out, joined up scheme can achieve all of these aims and more.

More broadly, these community based projects can offer training and skills development and ultimately help people back into work or to progress in their career.  We work with local charities and volunteer organisations so money we spend can stay in the local area to make a real difference.

What am I doing to make this happen?

I am working closely with colleagues developing local flood schemes, looking at broader community benefits that can improve the environment for people and wildlife at the same time as reducing flood risk.  We are also mapping where we would like to see river improvements, sharing this information with others and looking at where our interests overlap.  We have already identified areas that are at risk of surface flooding where we may be able to include measures that address this at the same time as improving the river Chelmer/  I will soon be able to share more details about some of these schemes to give a better idea of what can be achieved.

Keep listening for opportunities

I think this is the most important thing of all.  You need to be talking (and especially listening) to anyone who has an interest that could complement or compromise what you need to achieve.  The Catchment Partnerships in Combined Essex, South Essex and the Roding, Beam & Ingrebourne are fast becoming the place where people are networking, forging new links and making things happen.  Check out the Essex Rivers Hub web site to learn more about what is going on across Essex.

Until the next time.

Matt

Guest Blog – Using technology to engage people with their catchment

I am relaunching my Essex Rivers blog for 2015 with a guest blog from Sarah Taigel.  She has been doing some great things bringing together 2 of my passions: using technology and improving rivers.  Thank you Sarah as I know you are super busy!

If anyone else would like to be a guest blogger drop me a line via the About Me page.  Ok that is enough rambling from me.  On with the blog…

Hi – my name is Sarah and I am a PhD student in Norwich at the UEA, I’m just writing up the last few chapters of my research. Matt has asked me to write a blog post about how I have used different technology to engage people with their river catchments. I should probably explain that I really do love rivers, I have hugely enjoyed the 4 years that I have spent doing my PhD as it has given me a chance to become involved in the processes behind improved river management. Once I have finished the PhD then I am hoping to carry on working with river trusts and catchment officers all over the country to find innovative ways to use technology.

Alongside my love of rivers I have been fascinated by smartphones ever since I got my hands on an early version in July 2010, I like being able to take photographs, google information on my surroundings and get directions. When I started the PhD augmented reality or AR was emerging as a ‘new’ technology. AR allowed people to use their phone camera to see pieces of information dotted around their landscape. In some cities this had become a game and in others a useful means of finding out information such as the nearest hotel room with a space of the direction of a tube station. I wondered if it could be used to show people a hidden element to their landscape – the benefits which nature gives us.

Below is a screenshot of the app (VesAR) which I created. I trialled this at several locations and it quickly became a game – people asked how many points there were to spot and went off to hunt for them. The almost ethereal dots captured people’s imagination although our research showed those who were already engaged with their environment felt less kindly towards a technology they felt was invading their natural space.

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Left – The AR app in action

Below – Me out trialling the app before running some community sessions!

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After the wet summer of 2012 I turned my mind to the idea of engaging a wider variety of stakeholders with the issues across a catchment somewhere indoors (where it would hopefully be dry). And so my work began in North Norfolk. The Norfolk Rivers Trust were interested in engaging with people in the Stiffkey catchment and building up a picture of the problems which the river faced. I can’t show you the maps which I created due to copyright issues but I can say that it was a very exciting and interesting project to be involved in and it gave many people the chance to see the river as they had never seen it before.

I’ve attached a picture of one of the stakeholder meetings, my computer screen is over on the left, and we used virtual reality to fly people around the catchment pointing out where changes would improve the health of the river.

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PhD project usually come in threes and mine is no exception. Having explored the use of  a mobile phone to capture peoples interest and communicate information about the catchment landscape, and then having carried out an in depth stakeholder engagement process using GIS; my thoughts turned to the ways in which people could capture information while they were out and about.

An upgrade of my faithful smartphone last summer highlighted just how much the technology had moved on, and as my last project I decided to create something which would let those interested in their river report problems. The project which ran in October and November 2014 was called RiverEYE. This took the form of a simple form on the phone or tablet to record information, and a photo could be taken of a problem, a floating trolley, poorly fish, eroded banks or a non-native species and with a click of the finger on the screen the data would be saved. The Waveney River Trust kindly hosted the trial of the RiverEYE app and Matt came along to the final workshop.

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Above left – A photo taken of bank erosion.  Above right – The drop down menu for reporting the problem (right) using RiverEYE

What I really liked about this application was how it captured the exact location of the problem (using the phones GPS) and saved the information until the phone was back within WI-FI connection or a better signal. The report could be sent to a database and analysed using simple GIS tools to find out where the problems were in the catchment (see below). I would really like to see this type of reporting tool becoming easier to get hold of so that those of us who love our rivers can report the little problems we see to build a bigger picture of our environment.

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The phone reports don’t just have to be used for problems of course – they can be used to capture the things we really like about our environment as well, and we could just as easily find a means to store this information so that before work is carried out on a river or stream those in charge can see if something is important to the community in the area.

In the meantime though, if you would like to know more you can contact me using the details below –
image014Tel 01603 591362
email: s.taigel@uea.ac.uk
twitter: @Happy_Mapper
web: http://futurelandscapes.wordpress.com/

Using Catchment Dashboards to check the speed of river improvements…

There is no shortage of data and information on the state of our water environment.  What we felt was missing was a simple, regular and local update with a focus on current actions.  Something easy to read and useful to colleagues, partners and the wider public to show what is happening out there in the catchment.  After working through some ideas, the Catchment Dashboards were born.

We have produced the first edition for a number of our catchments including Combined Essex and I am keen to get feedback so we can make tweaks to the format and content.  Our aim is that the same information is shared with all audiences to ensure transparency and consistency.  This also means we get the best return for the resources taken to create the Catchment Dashboards and we can spend more time making improvements to our rivers rather than talking about it.

We have included a snapshot of current Water Framework Directive status across the catchment, a reminder of the most significant issues / challenges and some of the projects and other activities that have been carried out by ourselves and partners to improve WFD status.  We want to include projects and activities from as many organisations and groups as possible and we are working on the best way to collect this information.

Click on the image below to open the pdf Combined Essex Catchment Dashboard.

Click here to open the pdf Catchment Dashboard

There are a number of rough edges we need to smooth such as reducing the amount of text on the map on the last page and possibly changing the order of some of the sections, but this is very much work in progress.

If you have any feedback please comment on this post or contact me via the form on the About me page.

Thank you as always for your time and support.

Matt

Tell us what you think – Consultation on draft River Basin & Flood Risk plans

We are seeking views on proposals for improving the water environment and protecting communities from flood risk.  This follows on from our previous Challenges & Choices consultation that produced a broad range of views.

We would like your feedback to the draft updated  river basin management plan and draft flood risk management plan. Once agreed, these plans will shape decisions, direct investment and action and deliver significant benefits to society and the environment.

To add some more colour and perspective to these plans I hope to produce some short videos in the coming weeks and months looking across Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk.  Our focus is not on these plans being the finished article that can be put on a shelf and admired.  They should be blueprints for making real progress in improving our environment and reducing flood risk.

The updated draft river basin management plan sets out long term objectives for the quality of the water environment. It identifies the ecological condition of rivers, lakes and coastal waters and the pressures on them. The plan provide evidence that will help those with an interest in the water environment to agree where improvements can be made.

The updated draft flood risk management plan for the Anglian river basin district describes the risk of flooding from rivers, the sea, surface water, groundwater and reservoirs. It sets out how the Environment Agency, local councils and water companies will work together, with communities, to manage flood risk.

The formal closing date for the draft flood risk management plan consultation is 31 January 2015, while the draft updated river basin management plan consultations will run for six months, ending on 10 April 2015.

The Environment Agency is also carrying out a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) of each plan. The SEA identifies the significant effects that would be associated with implementing the draft plans.  We also invite your views on how we propose to approach this task.

We welcome your comments online or in writing.  If you would like to discuss the consultation or have any questions or concerns I would be pleased to hear from you via my About Me page.

Matt

Beyond Boundaries – Sprucing up Thurrock’s green corridor…

The Mardyke is an unassuming but vital part of the Thurrock landscape.  The name Mardyke (or Mar Dyke) itself apparently means “boundary ditch” and the course of this river still defines the extent of various local council Wards in Thurrock.

The Mardyke valley is so much more than that, however.  It is a precious a green corridor, giving a breathing space between urban areas.  The river channel and flood plain are criss-crossed by our rail and road arteries and thousands of people pass through the landscape each day without giving it a second glance.

Wouldn’t it be great to change that and put the lower Mardyke Valley on the map as a destination for people to enjoy and experience wildlife?  To give local communities better access to and understanding of their environment?  This is what the South Essex Catchment Partnership is all about; improving the environment for wildlife and local communities.

There are some stretches of the Mardyke, such as at Davy Down (shown below), that are a quiet haven for people and wildlife.  It is a great place to relax, walk and get close to nature and we can make it even better.  Although everything may look healthy from above the water, we still need to tackle pollution from roads and urban areas that is having a real impact on water quality.  Reduced water quality can have a real impact on ecology.  We are planning projects with Anglian Water and other partners to look at misconnections, road run-off and sewage treatment.

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The Mardyke at Davy Down, Stifford

The lower Mardyke Valley from Ship Lane, Aveley through to Purfleet (shown below) is an open, sometimes barren landscape with significant horse grazing.  There is so much potential here to balance the needs of graziers, nature and the local community.

Looking Downstream from Ship Lane Aveley

Looking Downstream from Ship Lane Aveley

We can plant trees to offer more shade to the river, for example.  This will keep the water cooler for fish and reduce the build-up of weed that can increase flood risk and degrade habitat quality.  We can create wetlands and change the shape of the river channel to reduce flood risk and improve habitat.  This has worked elsewhere and can be done here too.

Just as importantly, it would be great to increase and encourage public access to the Mardyke Valley so local people can enjoy and interact with their environment.  A clearly signed, safe access from the Thames at the RSPB  Rainham Marshes reserve through to Aveley, Stifford and South Ockendon could be a great resource.

We have already had one workshop event and more are planned in the coming months when we have our first Catchment Plan to share.  We would love to see even more people get involved, and the South Essex Catchment Partnership will take forward ideas and projects that bring together some of the elements I have gone through here and many other things people feel passionately about.

I feel the future is bright for the Mardyke and for the local communities along its valley.  Next time you drive along the M25 into or out of Essex think about the landscape beneath your wheels and maybe even break up your journey to explore a little.

Matt

Giving nature a hand – using woody debris to restore Essex rivers…

Our local geomorphologist and all-round river channel guru Trev Bond has been working with our Essex Ops team to give nature a hand along the River Crouch at Wickford.  The idea is to use carefully selected and installed parts of trees (woody debris) to replicate branches from trees falling into the river, influencing the flow of water and rebuilding natural features.  Unlike loose branches, these pieces of debris are firmly secured so they cannot come adrift and cause flooding problems elsewhere.  Flow velocity increases, silt is removed, gravels are exposed and habitat is created.

In this video Trev talks through what we are doing, how we do it and why…

For those who cannot view the video, here are some photos…

Some woody debris salvaged from within the Memorial Park.

Some woody debris salvaged from within the Memorial Park.

Digging a trench to secure the woody debris.

Digging a trench to secure the woody debris.

Woody debris securely installed in the bank of the river.

Woody debris securely installed in the bank of the river.

We want to return to the same spot in the future to document the effect of the features we have created.  We have had great feedback from local residents using the Memorial Park, not only of the work itself but also because we have opened up access to the River Crouch.  We hope to work with Basildon Council to undertake further improvements in the future.

Matt

Rain, restoration & renewal – an inspiring visit to Mayes Brook…

I really value the opportunity to learn more about projects that improve our rivers for the benefit of wildlife and the local community.  It is even better when I get to visit the site and speak to those involved.  I can really get a feel for how things have been achieved and the positive impact that has been made.  I am also keen to bring ideas back to Essex and make improvements here too.  That is how I ended up at Mayesbrook Park between Barking and Dagenham on a wet May day…

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It was a wet morning in Dagenham!

Mayes Brook, like many of our urban rivers, had become rather unloved.  Increasingly polluted from road run-off, misconnections and sewer overflows. It was hidden away in a concrete channel, behind tall fencing and isolated from the park and the community.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The park itself had become increasingly known for anti-social behaviour rather than being a space for people to enjoy.  Something had to change.

The Mayesbrook Park project is a great partnership between London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, the Environment Agency, the Mayor of London, Thames Rivers Restoration Trust, RSA, Natural England, London Wildlife Trust, and the SITA Trust.  The aim was to bring the brook back into the park and make it a valued feature, as well as reducing flood risk by creating an expanded flood plain and boosting ecology by creating new habitat.  By achieving these aims, hopefully the use of the park should increase and anti-social behaviour reduce.  Click on the image below to open a pdf leaflet summarising the project to date.

Click the image to open the pdf leaflet on Mayesbrook Park

Click the image to open the pdf leaflet on Mayesbrook Park

The benefit of seeing the park and Mayes Brook on a rainy day was that we could really see the scheme in action.  One area (shown below), that really impressed me, was where the old channel had been replaced by a wonderful, meandering and gently banked landscape.  Fantastic for flood storage, ecology and safe access.  This is something we could replicate at several location across Essex and changes the character of a park from a large, flat green field to something really alive.  Brilliant!

The narrow concrete lined channel has been replaced by a meandering, gently sloping channel and flood plain.

The narrow concrete lined channel has been replaced by a meandering, gently sloping channel and flood plain.

 

Another view of the more natural area created from the concrete lined channel.

Another view of the more natural area created from the concrete lined channel.

It was also great to see simple sustainable drainage (SuDS) techniques being used for the surface and roof drainage from the impressive new sports centre nearby.  Water was held in a series of fenced, grassy pond areas to reduce the rate of run-off and reduce pollutants heading to Mayes Brook.  These were working really well on the day of my visit.

One of the "SuDS ponds" to attenuate and treat roof water from the SportHouse building.

One of the “SuDS ponds” to attenuate and treat roof water from the SportHouse building.

Another view of one of the "SuDS ponds" in action.

Another view of one of the “SuDS ponds” in action.

In other parts of the park where space was restricted the fencing was removed from Mayes Brook, the concrete channel liner taken away and one of the banks reprofiled to increase capacity and habitat.  This was a huge improvement in itself and at least brought the brook out from its isolated hiding place.

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Where space was an issue, removing concrete channel and some regrading was done.

The other distinct part of the project was the nature reserve at the upstream end of the park.  This stretch of Mayes Brook had been reprofiled and improved, but was fenced off to allow wildlife to have a quiet haven.  Although public access is important, this provided a good compromise and allowed different species to flourish.

The fenced nature reserve area at the upstream end of the park.

The fenced nature reserve area at the upstream end of the park.

All this work to get Mayes Brook to be a part of the park and local community has been really successful.  By raising awareness of the importance of our rivers and streams we start to care more about pollution and misconnected drainage that would otherwise not seem as much of a problem.  The momentum we can build with these projects is staggering.

The most exciting thing about my visit to Mayesbrook Park was that I could straight away think of locations in Essex where we could adopt at least one of the techniques or approaches above.  Anywhere a brook or river flows through a park or other open space, we could do something positive.  The scale of improvement will depend on what the stretch of water needs, local support, partners, funding and willing volunteers.

Matt