The Broads - Barrier or Barrage
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It would not, however, have been politically correct for the authority to make such a suggestion at this time. The authority, responsible for the management of the Norfolk Broads which are in all but name a national park, has always been faced with very significant political challenges. The simple reason for this is the divergence of interests of farmers who occupy the land area between the broadland rivers, the recreational industry which is dependent on the rivers themselves, and environmental interests which are primarily interested in the ecology of the waste land that lies between the farm land and the rivers.
The unique environment of the Norfolk Broads was formally recognized in 1947 when the area was nominated for national park status. It was not until 1978 that the political challenges could be resolved and even then it was necessary to draft special legislation to accommodate them. But the challenge of the divergent interests continues and was indeed very evident in this most recent report.
There is almost certainly general agreement that the Broads environment needs preserving, but equally there are differing views of how this should be done. What is different about the Broads area is that it is anything but a natural ecology. The simple solution of letting nature take its course, without the intrusion of proactive preservation, might be appropriate in a pristine environment but probably not for the broads.
The area has until recent times been densely populated, in a relative sense. The land is generally easily worked, the rivers have provided good transportation and the climate is moderate. All three were critical for industry prior to the industrial revolution. Archaeological evidence suggests that much of the area has been actively farmed since at least Roman times.
Man's most obvious intrusion on the landscape, the broads, themselves, are abandoned mediaeval peat diggings. As the area was well populated at the time conventional firewood was probably in short supply as much of the land would have been cleared of woodland for food production needs. The demise of these industrial developments was probably the consequence of improved navigation and the availability of coal imported from elsewhere at competitive prices. Indeed with the improvement in navigation increasing the impact of tidal flooding may have hastened the demise of the peat diggings.
The improved navigation, however, provided the area with a transportation advantage that continued to serve it well until the railways were developed in the nineteenth century. The legacy for the area is a network of rivers, large relative to their catchment areas.
In turn rail and improved road infrastructure provided the Broads with new opportunities. The legacy of large navigable rivers connected to the broads was a natural environment for recreation boating. The improved land transportation provided access for holiday makers.
In more recent times vacation preferences fuelled by lower cost air travel and increased income has switched to overseas destinations with better climates. The Broads are now, therefore, seen increasingly as an environmental asset, although the challenge of exploiting what had been previously regard as waste land between the valued assets of farm land and the rivers is only slowly emerging.
The Broads Plan 2004 draft understandably dwells at length on balancing the current interest of the various area stakeholders. But the inclusion of a brief 100-year perspective is significant. This highlights the reality that the long term future of the broads is threatened as much by nature as man.
Most prominent of the projections was a 90-centimetre increase in sea level. This would mean that almost the entire Broads navigation system would be at sea level. Further changes in climate are expected to result in a longer growing season, wetter winters and drier summers. This would increase the challenge of saline intrusion during the summer months when it is generally perceived to be most threatening. Winter tidal surges have always taken their toll on fish populations but do not seem to be as critical for the wider ecology.
In a more general context, as the freshwater catchment area of the Broads is very limited, the environment will logically change from predominantly freshwater to mainly salt water, if nothing is done to address the situation. Further a large body of fresh water in an area recognized as short water would be lost and flooding when it did occur would be saline and thus more devastating.
A ready fix to this challenge, however, is available. Building a barrier or a barrage at Great Yarmouth would, respectively, either restrict or eliminate tides, and thus saline intrusion either partially or almost completely. This was considered twenty years ago with cost justification being based on agricultural benefits. It was opposed by environmental interests which saw the implicit conversion of traditional grassland to crop production as retrogressive. This past battle won seems to continue to dominate the thinking of environmentalists.
The broads' tradition of letting nature its course where no economic utility exists, however, is unlikely to prevail. On the ecological side the mantra of conserving the status quo seems well and truly embedded in the concrete of European Union legislation. And when push comes to shove the environmentalists are likely to opt for the comfort of artificially preserving the existing unique ecology over allowing nature create something different. The interests of the rest of the economy are surely for conserving the freshwater resource and preventing flooding particularly if it is likely to be increasingly saline.
For a change the interests of those involved are likely to coincide.
As to the choice between barrier and barrage, the advantage of the former is that it is less intrusive. The tidal flow would only be restricted at exceptionally high tides, allowing better preservation of water quality in an ecological context and being a lesser impediment to navigation. A barrage with locks for navigation and creating a totally freshwater reservoir out of the Broads would probably provide greater benefits for society as a whole. Taking a very long term view, as the sea level rises, the increased frequently of the closing of the barrier would result in it ultimately becoming a barrier in all but name.
The ultimate choice will surely depend on the relative strengths of the political interests at the time the decision is made. What is clear is that one or the other will be deemed necessary.
May 20, 2003
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