One little river – one big story of flood, drought and pollution

Published October 2015

Published in edited form by The Guardian
October 8 2015

This begins with a man in the street. I often used to notice him, because he looked so out of place. In amongst the townies with their anoraks and sensible shoes, he was blatantly a country man in weather-beaten tweeds and clumpy boots. More than that, he seemed to come from another era, a big stocky man with white whiskers running down both sides of his round ruddy face, like a yeoman farmer from Georgian England.

And then one day, by sheer fluke, I found him online – that special face of his – on a local wildlife website. He was writing an occasional diary about the River Ouse which runs through this part of Sussex. It may sound sentimental but there was something about the way he wrote which was a little bit moving.

A day in December: “I disturbed a green woodpecker from a riverside tree and I could hear a wren calling from up in the ivy. Away from the river, I heard the chattering rattle of the mistle thrush.” In February: “I was delighted to see primroses out in the village pond with some early celandines like bright yellow stars in the roadside ditch… Blackbirds have paired up, and a robin was singing at the top of his voice, no doubt proclaiming his territory.” In September: “I could hear a noise coming from a field of sweet corn, which turned out to be a badger munching on a corn cob…. At the Eye Plantation stood a large fallow deer buck plus four others which soon ran off into the shadows of the woodland.”

It was his enthusiasm for the countryside which struck me – the fact that he appeared to be out there by the river just about every day, his knowledge of its wildlife, his sheer affection for the beauty of it all. The diaries were signed: Jim Smith, River Bailiff. I went to find him.

It turned out that he has been walking the banks of the Ouse for 52 years, since he was 19 years old. For many of those years, he was officially the keeper of the river, hired by the local angling society to watch over the water and its banks. He is retired now, but he still walks and he still notices, and during the summer months, I walked with him.

I think there are not many left like Jim Smith. He is a man who knows when the winter has turned harsh over in Scandinavia because he hears the wigeons outside his window at night, making that little whistling noise as they arrive in the UK in search of milder air; who knew he should stop and stand quietly when he noticed two male adders on the river bank and so was privileged to see them dancing, twining their bodies together in a contest for dominance; who notices that when a game of cricket finishes in his village, three crows who live in an old oak on the edge of the ground, fly down to feast on worms which they know will crawl to the surface when the groundsman waters the pitch.

It is not just that he knows how the river flows and how the animals around it behave. He is also acutely aware of what is happening around it, of threats and tensions, of the subtle impact of private profit and public bureaucracy. And the more we talked, the more I understood why it was that on several occasions while we were out walking, he told me he was worried, frightened even.

*

Jim often points out that the Ouse is only a little river. It rises in the high weald of north Sussex and flows southwards for only 30 miles before it pours itself into the English Channel at Newhaven. Along the way, it is fed by numerous smaller streams which, like the Ouse itself, have their source in the natural underground aquifers which hold the rain water which seeps slowly into the chalk of the South Downs.

He grew up on its banks in the village of Isfield, 14 miles inland, where he still lives, happy without a mobile phone or a computer. He had a deeply rural childhood. His father drove a horse and cart on a local hop farm. His mother knew how to use herbs from the fields as medicines. From his earliest years, he was out here fishing with a home-made rod and line; using pet ferrets to hunt for rabbits along the railway bank and selling them for pocket money. He says he remembers looking out of the window at school and seeing some men working on the river banks and wishing one day he could do the same.

I started to understand the importance of this river on that first sun-drenched Saturday in mid June when we were out in the fields near his home. Now aged 71, Jim was shuffling along with his right hand leaning on the walking stick which he made himself from a holly branch (“Let it stay for a year before you work on it”) with a handle which he worked from a deer antler. At first, he was just pointing out little things that caught his eye in the natural world – the dead alder tree which had been colonised by bats; the breast of an old ash tree gripped by a black fungus known as King Alfred’s Cake; sprays of pink Himalayan balsam flowers down by the water line, a weed in all but name “but the bumblebees like it”.

Then something caught his eye in the field in front of us by a clump of trees which he called Paygate Shaw. Why the name? “Well, ‘Shaw’: that’s an old Sussex word for a small wood. And ‘Paygate’ because that’s where the old road was.” What road? There was absolutely no physical sign of any road at all. “The Roman road. It used to cross the river here at a ford.”

Later, I checked and I found he was right, that the Roman road from London ran straight across the river here as it headed south towards the coast and that, a few years ago, some archaeologists had dug 12 inches down through a farmer’s field a couple of miles away and found the surface of the road still intact – and still showing the rut marks of wheels nearly two thousand years old. At this same point, where the Romans had their ford, on the far side of the river, Jim pointed out a pattern of bumps and lumps in the undergrowth, which proved to be the remains of a motte-and-bailey, an old fortification which was built and rebuilt here, as first the Romans, then the Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans took over this territory by force of arms, settled by the river and set about defending it.

The point was that the river’s banks proved to be riddled with clues like this, subtle remants of the humans who had relied on it – for transport and power, for the farmers’ crops, for drinking water for man and beast. For survival really.

There were signs of ancient life in the hillocky shapes of neolithic burial chambers which have stood for up to 5,000 years on the ridges overlooking the river; or in the flints and arrow heads which turn up in the soil under farmers’ ploughs more than 3,000 years after they dropped in the bronze age; in the clear outline of ditches and ramparts which were part of iron age forts; in broken bits of pot and coins as far back as the rule of Verica, who was king in these parts before the Romans arrived.

There are echoes from centuries of production of charcoal and iron in the names of Furnace Pond, Hammer Pond and the Iron River tributary. There are the clear marks of the industrial revolution in the remains of 19 locks built in Victorian times to allow barges to reach deeper inland, fetching corn and chalk and ironwork. You could probably read the military history of England in the banks of this little river: the village named Fletching for the specialist arrow-makers whose work killed so many at Agincourt; the White Bridge at Isfield whose stones are recycled from the sacking of Lewes Priory at the hands of King Henry VIII’s thugs; the cannon balls which still show up in the river’s silt having fallen off barges on their way to the great battles of the Civil War; the fort at Newhaven which has stood to defend the river’s mouth at various points against the Spanish armada, the French and the Germans.

That day in Isfield, we came across a pillbox from the second world war, part of the ‘Stop Line’ which was designed to slow down a German invasion of south east England and which ran up the western bank of the Ouse: on the walls inside, you can still read the scribbled signatures of Canadian soldiers who were based here before they were scythed down in their hundreds in the disastrous raid on Dieppe in August 1942.

And all these clues conveyed the same message – that always and without exception, all through the centuries, these men and women understood that they had to have the river, that water is essential. Without it, there is no animal life, and there is no human life. Now see what happened one day towards the end of June when Jim Smith took me up to the source of the Ouse.

*

This was the kind of Engish summer day which makes foreign visitors jealous. Everywhere there was life – dragon flies, butterflies, bumble bees, honey bees, all flirting in the sun. As we walked down the narrow old lane towards the source of our river, Jim was pointing out wildflowers which were sprayed across the verges – bright purple campion, red pimpernel, tiny blue speedwells (wide open as a marker of good weather), miniature wild ferns, bursts of honeysuckle and bushes full of rhododendrum. At one moment, he stopped and pointed his walking stick at the legs of the hedge where he had spotted some tiny rub marks – where fallow deer had been wriggling out of the farmer’s field to cross the road. And, turning to the opposite verge, we could see where the grass had been pressed downwards a little on the route they had been using to get into the woods on the other side. “I like to notice things,” he said.

Soon we came to the bridge across the infant Ouse, which looked as old as the lane, with a rickety wooden fence covered in lichen and an outbreak of wild roses. A picture of well being. We looked over its side in search of the babbling, bubbling stream which for centuries has come to life here in the woods and…. we found ourselves peering down through the overhanging saplings at a stagnant puddle. There was no babble nor bubble. It just sat there like a sulky brat curled up in the shadow, sullen and dark and still. The only sign of life were a few tadpoles flicking around just beneath its oily surface. Simply: the stream had stopped running.

Jim was shaking his head. “I’ve seen it dry back up here before,” he said. “But never this early. If we could go back in time and come here at this date year after year, I don’t think we would ever see it like this.”

We spent the next several hours exploring further downstream, down to Mill Pond where normally the stream flows into one end and then out the other, but we found the water there was no longer high enough to reach the exit. There was nothing at all flowing out of the pond and so, as we followed the stream’s course down through the woods to the old police college outside Slaugham village, there was not even stagnant water – just rock and shale, lying dry and naked in the river’s bed. Even at Lower Rylands Bridge, more than six miles from the source, when minor streams and a reservoir had finally brought it to life, the Ouse was still only crawling along on its knees: it was flowing but, as Jim put it, “that’s not enough to float a matchbox.”

Now, come away from the river bank, to a deep reservoir of specialist knowledge about rivers and water which appears to be lying largely unnoticed and unappreciated. The immediate cause of the early dry-back at the source of the Ouse was simply that there was not enough water in the underground aquifer on which it feeds, but that turns out to be part of something bigger.

Where the Ouse is concerned, the local branch of the Environment Agency in March 2013 reported that, depending on conditions, there are now periods when they can abstract water on no more than 94 days in a year. For the rest of the year, abstractors can use water which has been stored during the wet months in the big reservoir at Ardingly; and they can pump up water through boreholes which they have sunk into the underground aquifers. Which in turn reduces the amount of water which bubbles up into the river and its tributaries. The Environment Agency have stopped issuing new abstraction licences for the river. Meanwhile, during the summer months, nearly half of what we like to describe as a river is, in fact, recycled waste water and sewage.

The future looks even more worrying. In April this year, a report by the environmental consultants Amec Foster Wheeler for the South Downs National Park compared supply and demand in the area’s nine ‘water resource zones’. It concluded that, as things stand, in a dry year, five of the nine zones could fall short. Two of those five take water from the Ouse: one is forecast to reach the risk of shortfall in 2019; the other to do so in 2015. Now, in other words.

And it turns out that there is nothing special about the Ouse. The whole southern and south east region is officially classified by the Environment Agency as being under “serious water stress”. Consider this stunning statement buried in the undergrowth of one of the agency’s reports on the the South East River Basin, which runs along the south coast from Hampshire through Sussex to Kent: “There are concerns over maintaining the water resources available for people and the environment in this part of England. This river basin district has some of the highest levels of personal water use in the country whilst, on average, the amount of water available per person is less than for Morocco or Egypt.”

Reaching deeper into this reservoir of reports, it becomes clear that it is not only the South East which is facing problems. In December 2011, a government White Paper considered various possible scenarios for the future water supply across the whole country. It concluded: “All of the scenarios predicted a future with less water available for people, businesses and the environment. Future pressures will not be limited to the south and east of England. Under many of the scenarios, the south west and northern England will see significant unmet demand.”

You begin to see why Jim Smith says he is worried. Walking by his troubled river, he was perfectly clear about the source of the problem, a horrible collusion of two powerful forces.

The first is climate change. This man who lives so much in the natural world has no doubt that it is happening. “The seasons have definitely changed. In the summer months, there just isn’t enough water in the system. A lot of the Downland streams are dry. Areas that used to be wetlands are getting progressively drier. A lot of the ditches are dry.”

The Environment Agency are projecting a net drop in overall river flows of 15% by 2050. The Met Office predict that by the end of the century in the UK serious droughts like the famous one of 1975/6 could be happening once a decade.

But it is the second cause which really disturbs Jim. Just as the supply of water is being reduced, so the demand for it is being increased relentlessly by the apparently endless activity of property developers, driven by a rising population: “Water starvation here is a comparatively new situation with more and more development in the last 30 years. I don’t want to shout at developers, but they build more and more houses and they don’t think about water, without which they can’t survive. People look at a reservoir and think ‘plenty of water’ – there might be to some degree – but that water can only last for so long, can only be pumped to so many people.”

The government’s Natural Capital Committee last year reported that houshold consumption of water had risen from just over 5,000 million litres a day in 1990 to more like 8,500 million litres in 2010. The government White Paper of December 2011 predicted that the combination of a higher population with more single households would push up demand for water by around 5% by 2020 and by as much as 35% by 2050. That’s the same year when the Environment Agency are predicting that overall river flows may have fallen by 15%. It is a vicious clash of causes, like two hurtling trucks colliding.

**

Jim Smith likes to say that the jewels in the crown of his river are the sea trout, partly because of the extraordinary distances they will swim in the oceans when they temporarily leave the river before coming home to breed. But, more than that, they are important because they are an indicator species: “If things go wrong, they will go wrong first with the sea trout.” Jim minds them like a parent. He watches the hens as they use their tails to build nests in the riverbed and then to flip gravel over the eggs to keep them safe. At times, he has organised tonnes of new gravel to be laid in the river to help them. He and other local volunteers have built passes by the side of weirs and locks so that they can make their way upstream to the mating grounds. He listens for them at night. “You get used to the sound of water running over pebbles and you can hear little slapping sounds, which is the cock trout fighting each other for the right to fertilise.”

And it is a measure of the ill health of this river that during this summer, Jim and those volunteers have been finding some of the precious sea trout, which have survived so much, now turning belly up and dying in the Ouse. Simply, they are suffocating for want of oxygen in the water. That saddens and worries Jim Smith: “To see fish dying in the river is a bit disconcerting when you have been looking after it all. Not just the sea trout. All the fish are valuable because they are part of the eco system of the river. And if that eco system goes, you have had it.” A sick river will spread its damage.

Human activity is not only draining the river and its aquifers of water, it is spitting gobs of poison into the flow that remains. Sometimes, this is the result of accident. Back in August 2001, fishermen started contacting Jim to report sea trout twisting and flipping on the river’s surface, obviously in distress; then they were floating dead downstream. And roach and bream and perch and chub… Within a couple of days, there were dead fish over an eleven-mile stretch of the river. Jim and a partner were out day and night, wearing white ‘goon suits’, picking up fish whose flesh would then fall apart in their hands. The Environment Agency sent out a team who discovered that a strawberry farm had accidentally swilled pesticide down a drain and into the river. By the time the incident was over, 80% of the fish in the effected area were dead – five tonnes of them.

More often, the poison is simply part of modern life on a river bank. Farmers and gardeners protect their crops and plants from slugs and snails with metaldehyde.The rain then washes it into the river: the Ouse is polluted with it all the way from Jim’s village of Isfield to the coast. The same happens with pesticide from sheep dip and gardens and parks. It all trickles down. But for rivers now, the most common enemy is phosphate which creates thick blankets of green algae. By day it smothers plants. By night it sucks oxygen out of the water. At any time, it will sink down to the river bed, ruining the habitat of the creatures which live there. Phospate gets into the river from fertiliser on farmers’ fields and from excrement – cattle manure on the fields, dog shit on the streets and the human stuff too. Particularly the human stuff.

Up and down the banks of the Ouse, there are little red-brick buildings with pipework and wire mesh fences: treatment works which clean up waste water and human sewage. There are 38 of them in all. “If you had red dots on a map to mark every one of them, the map would look like it had measles,” as Jim puts it. Routinely, treated effluent from these works is discharged into the river – 856,000 cubic metres of it every month. And routinely it contains phosphate.

One of the volunteers who has worked to protect the Ouse is Dr Clive Fetter, a chemist who fished the river as a boy. He checks the quality of water which other volunteers collect at key points on the river and its tributaries. Over and again, he finds phosphate levels which are officially classified as ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ in water which is immediately downstream from treatment works. Fetter’s conclusion is simple and clear: the water companies should be required to take all the phosphate out of the effluent before they release it in the river. “The need for this to happen soon is clear,” he says.

His findings also point to something nastier. In the chalkland streams which feed the Ouse, he sometimes finds sudden very high spikes in the level of phosphate. Fetter strongly suspects that somebody is dumping raw human sewage into the river. Some of the hot spots are upstream from the treatment works and are almost certainly from private houses which use septic tanks. Years ago, they would have been emptied by the rural district council. Now, it has all been privatised and, Fetter fears, some owners may not want to pay for their tanks to be emptied, so they are dumping it for free. However, sometimes the raw sewage is coming direct from the treatment works.

The law allows the water companies to dump raw sewage in any river if their systems are overloaded as long as the Environment Agency agrees. At other times, the companies do it because of some error or malfunction. Over the years, Jim has seen numerous horrors: treatment works fail, animals die, the company pays a fine and moves on. This summer, Southern Water were convicted in court of breaching their environmental permit after dumping 40 million litres of raw human sewage into the sea at Worthing, because three pumps had failed at a treatment works and were threatening to push the sewage back into the town. “Three pumps?” said Jim. “That sounds to me like a maintenance problem. They’re not checking them often enough, the way they used to before they were privatised.”

When a team from the University of Brighton spent two years from 2009 to 2011 testing the water along the length of the Ouse, they found traces of faeces in all 26 test sites – including human faeces in 22 of them. At 19 of the 26 sites, the associated bacteria were above the level deemed sufficiently safe to swim by the EU Bathing Water Directive. Southern Water have pointed out that the river is not officially designated as a swimming area, but during the summer months, it is a common sight to see people playing and swimming in its water.

Nationally, the nine water companies which treat sewage were involved in 2,358 pollution incidents last year. Sixty one of them were rated ’serious’. Southern Water, which handles sewage for all of the Ouse, has been prosecuted for these incidents 166 times in the past 25 years.

**

At root, there is a cultural problem – of taking water for granted and treating rivers as bottomless waste-disposal units. A few years ago, Jim joined a group of volunteers in Lewes who decided to clear rubbish out of the Ouse. They removed: 28 shopping trolleys, 12 bikes, 6 scooters, 14 traffic cones, 6 car tyres, 1 skateboard, 4 roadworks signs, several scaffolding poles, a metal beer keg and 2 full-size steel football goals. That was all in one six-metre stretch.

Beyond that, a solution is hard to grasp because the roots of the scarcity run so deep. Governments have spent several decades fiddling around the edges of climate change without finally confronting its profound implications for their voters’ lifestyle. And what government outside China is willing to tell its people to have fewer children?

The government knows the danger. Their White Paper of December 2011 said: “In the coming years, the combined effects of climate change and a growing population are likely to put increasing pressure on our rivers, lakes and aquifers. If we do not act, the security of our water supplies could be compromised…. We must halt and reverse the damage we have done to water ecosystems and ensure that they can continue to provide essential services to us and the natural environment more generally.” It is not clear that the solutions which they are offering, go deep enough to solve the problem.

Big options like desalinating sea water or pumping water from one end of the country to the other have been ruled out on grounds of cost. Instead, they are relying primarily on installing meters to encourage households to cut their consumption. The government’s own National Capital Committee, in its 2014 report, has pointed out the problem with that: “While personal consumption is expected to fall between now and 2030, the expected growth in population will offset this, and total demand is, therefore, expected to rise significantly.”

In addition, government are pressing the water companies to do still more to stop leakage from their pipes. The difficulty there is that the companies have already taken the cheap and easy steps and may find it difficult to hit the required target. But even on the optimistic assumption, that goverment can hit its targets for both cutting consumption and reducing leaks, the arithmetic does not seem to add up.

In a paper for Policy Exchange, Dr Simon Less, the former director of the water regulator, Ofwat, cited the Environment Agency as reckoning that households in England and Wales collectively are already using between 1,100 and 3,300 million litres a day more than our water bodies can deliver without being damaged. Defra say they hope that installing meters will cut consumption by 215 million litres a day, and that reducing leaks will save a further 158 million litres, ie a total daily saving of 373 million litres. Even on the lowest estimate, that seems to fall short by 727 million litres. 1m litres provides enough water for some 7,000 households. It does not matter how often you check the maths, the implication is that we would have enough water if 5 million households would stop using it. And if you take the higher estimate – a shortfall of 3,300 million litres – we would need 20.5m households to stop.

The risk here is not that millions of people in Britain are suddenly going to die gasping of thirst. It is that after all those years in which humans settled by rivers and thrived, we have now got ourselves locked into conflict with our natural surroundings. Either the humans or the rivers have to suffer. At the moment, it is the rivers, although in the longer term a sick river will produce less water, so the humans will end up in trouble as well. In his Policy Exchange paper, which was writtn in 2011, Dr Simon Less reported that a third of our river catchments are already classed as ‘over abstracted’, ie their health is being damaged by the amount of water which is being taken out of them.

Our water bodies are protected primarily by two forces. There is the Environment Agency which in the last seven years has reviewed some 1,500 of the licences which have been granted to water companies, farmers and others to abstract water. They have changed 228 of them to deal with ‘unsustainable abstraction’ but they say they have a problem: many of these licences were issued years ago and without limits to protect tired water bodies, and so they have no legal power to require them to change. The agency also has been weakened by having its budget cut every year since 2009 including losing 26% of those who used to deal with applications for new houses and factories.

Then there is the unpopular European Union with its Water Framework Directive (WFD) which has been embedded in UK law since December 2003. It requires all UK water bodies to be checked for ecological and chemical problems and for all of them to be rated as ‘Good’ by 2015. We are nowhere near that goal. Indeed, faced with the enormity of the problem, the authorities had to drop the target.

Instead of aiming for 100%, the Environment Agency set out nationally to achieve a ‘Good’ target in 2015 of only 31% of water bodies. The WFD has a loophole which allows governments which are faced with disproportionate costs, to set the target back by 12 years, to a final deadline of 2027. But even that is beyond the UK’s reach. The agency reports that it “believes that achieving Good status in all water bodies by 2027 will not be possible using current technologies. Even achieving 75% Good status will require marked changes in land use and water infrastructure… By current standards, such changes are extremely unlikely to be economically or socially acceptable.”

The agency has generated a lot of creative local schemes, and it argues that rivers are healthier than they have been for 20 years and that many of the water bodies – 27% of them – are failing on only a single test from a long list. But the underlying problem is that the legacy of indifference towards our water means that the estimated cost of hitting the WFD targets by 2027 is £16.4 billion. On the Ouse alone, they estimate it would cost £43 million.

Jim Smith leans on his walking stick and reckons out loud: “There is more and more pressure on this little river. I feel that it is being sacrificed because they have to build more houses.”

******

Autumn came early. By the last week of August, the air was thick with falling rain, and Jim reported that the top of the Ouse had come to life again. And, as the river rose, a more familiar problem rose with it: the risk of flood, now provoked by the same factors which underly scarcity – climate change and building.

The effect of climate change is not simply to reduce rain during the summer months, but also to increase the number of torrential storms. When the rain falls that fast, it cannot sink into the ground and go down to the aquifers. It runs off the fields and races through the streets and almost all of it ends up in the rivers. Jim watched from the fields near his village in October 2000 after a month’s worth of winter rain fell in only four days. He realised that it had broken through the walls upstream to invade the town of Uckfield when tins of biscuits from the supermarket and thousands of video cassettes from Blockbusters started careering downstream. He saw the water surging out into the old flood plains and then hurtling back towards the briver, breaking through the embankment of the old railway line which stood in its way, tossing aside lumps of concrete, and then hurling itself southwards, down to Lewes, where it broke through the flood walls and erupted into the town. That day, the rampant Ouse broke into 1,033 buildings, spraying them with sewage and waste water, and wrecking 682 vehicles as it passed. Total estimated cost: £130 million.

Yet, in spite of this and numerous other similar recent disasters across the UK, as the pressure for more housing has increased, local authorities have granted permission for more building to take place on flood plains, a move which may be asking for trouble but which is now backed, in the absence of any suitable alternative, by the National Planning Policy Framework. This, in turn, has created a policy clash.

In his classic book, Taming the Flood, which has just been reissued, specialist ecologist Jeremy Purseglove has traced the impact of official policy in actively – albeit accidentally – encouraging the risk of flooding. After big floods in 1947 and 1953, the government organised a campaign to have rivers straightened and dredged in the hope that this would allow them to carry away excess water. That policy then coincided with farmers being given grants to drain ancient flood plains to create more space for crops. Purseglove argues that the combined effect was that more rain water poured into rivers which were more able to carry great surges of water. “Effectively, we were accumulating the threat and passing it to some point downstream.” It was like designing floods.

Purseglove and others are pushing the case for Natural Flood Management, to restore the old wetlands and flood plains and to allow the rivers to overflow into them. They have had some success, and Purseglove says he is optimistic. But after the floods in rural Somerset last year, there was a backlash from local farmers and others claiming that the floods would never have happened if the rivers had been dredged. Purseglove rejects the argument: “They could have dredged to the absolute maximum in Somerset and it would not have stopped those floods. There was just too much water.” Nevertheless, the then Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles heard warning words from the Environment Agency about the dangers of dreding and denounced them as “politically correct eco-fanatics”. Some 1,400 possible sites for dredging are believed to have been identified in an initial government study, though the Environment Agency say they aim to check each one before anything goes ahead.

Meanwhile, the property developers are busy. In Lewes, for example, in spite of its recent disaster, there are plans to build 667 new houses in locations where the risk of flooding is officially recognised as ‘high.’ And Southern Water have refused to release its data to identify the parts of the town which are vulnerable not just to flooding but to being swamped with sewage during a flood, on the grounds that it would effect property values.

*****

When he was officially the river bailiff, Jim had to deal with poachers stealing fish. He had a constable’s powers to make arrests. He even carried handcuffs and once was injured by a poacher who flew at him. It is different now. There has been a river bailiff here since Victorian times but when Jim retired a few years ago, he was not replaced. He stills walks the river and watches, but he no longer has any power to protect the water and the life that depends on it. Maybe nobody really does.

ends

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