One wet drought

Flash flooding hit parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire yesterday. There’s coverage over at the BBC and looking out we had some hours of tension ourselves last night:

Photo: Nearby stream overwhelms its grit trap

 A local stream overtopped a nearby flood defence. For about 15 minutes it swelled onto the main road, scouring away grit and soil in its path. Another quarter of an hour later it was only running down one lane of the road. Minutes later the water had almost gone. It was shocking, really, to see how quickly the volume and direction of flow can change – and to realise how little I could do about it myself once it was happening (other than photograph it, as several of our intrepid neighbours joined us in doing!). Today looking out there is virtually no trace of the event. More rain is forecast though.

 Gravity was on our side fortunately. Many families and businesses in other towns were not so lucky, as another BBC story shows. Here’s hoping they’ll get the cross-agency, council and community help – and insurance responses – they need. Update: Here’s just an indication of how bad it got in places:

All in all, maybe 2012 will be remembered not only for the Olympics (and I wonder what weather they’ll eventually get…) but also as a tipping point for public mood on water sector climate change resilience? We’ve had unprecedented, concurrent drought and flood conditions. Will these help move water issues up the political agenda, above and beyond the still delayed mixed bag that is the Draft Water Bill?

On top of the extreme weather, this thought is on my mind for two reasons. First, I’ve very recently attended my first two Ofwat Future Regulation Advisory Panel meetings. These are looking ahead across a spectrum of issues in an impressive way, I must say. And yet due to the separation of regulatory powers some issues are outside Ofwat’s statutory remit meaning this exercise can’t be an integrated, long-term national policy assessment process. Without a strong political drive there will always be limits to how much can be changed.

Photo: On the outside looking in – my view during a Ofwat FRAP meeting

This brings me to my second point. Some conservations I had with water industry colleagues last week, following on from my bit on the You & Yours programme on drought earlier this month, have me thinking whether the time is right for some kind of ‘Big Water Debate’ in the UK? (…admittedly it would need a better title!)

Of course this is what the water policy and regulatory process should be – and to some extent are – doing, on an ongoing basis. I’m intrinsically sceptical about the lasting effect of ‘public understanding of science’ type events but still I can’t recall a good water one in the UK, and it may have some value. Imagine a themed week or month of topical shows and features, covering the vast range of issues and stakeholders that water matters affect… (No doubt the people behind the Liquid Assets public education water initiative in the States would approve…)

Let’s be clear. This would be no easy undertaking – to produce inclusive, thought-provoking, accurate and comprehensive material without being hijacked by the loudest voices (*cough* water companies *cough*). Still, with so some many of us talking about our ‘wettest drought ever’, will this generation see a better time to move on from our ‘flush and forget’ and ‘it falls from the sky’ mentalities into some proper debate on these vital topics?

Update: Here’s another clip, this time of Mytholmroyd, showing a shocking difference between the before and after conditions:

Update: There are also now some stories about the clean-up in Hebden Bridge, with comments criticising existing flood defences and the timing of sandbag delivery. There’s another story here that suggests damage costs too.

Duncan Thomas


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