Flood lands and water supply
A River's Birthright.Pages: <1>
Famous rivers lessening into shallow brooks. (Swift.)
Whether or not the Egyptians, before the time of Herodotus, possessed a great deal more knowledge concerning the management of a river, in limes of drought and of flood, than is enjoyed by the average conservator of the present day, it is certain that no record of complaint has come down to us regarding the mismanagement of the Nile; while a great many accounts and illustrations are extant of the engineering feats planned and carried out. hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Christ.
That the Egyptians had learnt the importance of not interfering with the flood lands of the Nile, but had left to nature the formation of those ' Khors ' mentioned so frequently in the accounts of Kitchener's Khartoum expedition, is beyond all question; while it appears that this same knowledge has been withheld from those who during the past fifty years have been responsible for the management or conservation of the Thames.
It had better be stated in the first instance exactly what is meant by ' flood lands.' They are the meadows, swamps, inlets, bogs, soft places, or lagoons, which in every natural river lie on either side of its banks where the country is fairly level. Needless to say, where a river passes through a rocky defile there can be no flood lands, and any rush of water merely deepens and slightly widens the stream.
During its summer - or perhaps it would be more correct to say - during its drought level, when the water recedes below its average banks, the flood lands become almost dry, and n that aspect rather offer themselves for cultivation, or permanent occupation.
Little objection, from the river's point of view, can be taken to their being used as osier or water cress beds, or as preserves for snipe. But they rightly and naturally belong to the river, just as much as a reserve fund belongs to a Bank; and if once this fact is lost sight of, and they are used for other purposes, nature is certain to be revenged in her usual slow and sure method.
The very fact of these damp places being left undrained and uncultivated renders their soil spongy, mossy, and fibrous; in which state it both absorbs and retains moisture during the weeks or months of a prolonged drought, and also promotes the growth of vegetation which may in its turn retain, utilise, or even induce an increased rainfall.
But for the possession of its flood lands, therefore, a river could almost run itself dry, or at least become resolved into a mere succession of pools. During prolonged wet weather, the river again looks to its flood lands for assistance. It becomes bank high; and then the increasing flood water, instead of being all hurried down stream to do tearing damage to its own banks, and to those who dwell near them or between them, has room to spread far and wide over the meadows, swamps, and reservoirs, which nature or man have either provided or prepared.
It is, in two words, held up; and can take its own time for gradual evaporation, absorption or dispersal. Although the whole country at one time of writing may be deploring a water famine, and grumbling at the insufficient storage capacity of the various Water Companies* reservoirs, one has only to look a few years back to find letters in the press asking for more adequate provision against the state of flood, consequent upon a continuous wet winter. Here then are the two extremes of flood and drought both occurring within one quinquennial period, and both likely to recur in future years, so long as the flood lands, properly belonging to the rivers are not strictly conserved, or even restored to their original littoral ownership.
When engineers plan the building of a bridge •n a tropical country, they set to work intelligently to learn up the history of the river, which they propose to span, for a period of ten years or more; together with the average rainfall in that river's upper districts. Even after this precaution, they occasionally And that the ten years' record is not enough, and that an abnormal flood, like that which swept away the bridge at Brisbane, upsets all their calculations.
Nothing so strikes the attention of a visitor to hilly and wooded tropical districts, during the dry season, than the vast disproportion between a tiny stream trickling through a large bed of sand, and the enormous span of a new iron bridge which carries the road or the railway across the nullah. Yet in England - especially in the whole length of the Thames valley - one is almost forced to the conclusion that intelligence has been sadly wanting - or has beer, sacrificed to greed - as evidenced by the gradual reclamation of the flood lands.
Had the river Thames been conserved, in the literal sense of the word, there would neither have been floods in one year, nor a severe drought in another. Anyone who walks along the banks of a river can see fairly accurately what difference a rise of one foot, or two feet, will make as regards the retention of the stream in its normal bed. When the rise amounts to four and five feet, owing to heavy rain in the upper or hilly districts, it is evident that the water requires an outlet, through natural or artificial ' Khors ' or channels, into some adjacent low lying land, where it can remain for days or weeks until the season changes and the stream subsides.
Where adequate flood lands are provided, as they are by nature, it is often possible to prevent a small river from rising as much as four feet lower down the stream by thus retaining the overflow.
During a long series of years, prior to the present generation, our English rivers had been accustomed to occupy certain low lying land after every burst of wet weather. They filled the dykes in February in the old proverbial manner, and the lower reaches were accordingly saved from the full force of the flood. The Thames was able, to a limited extent, to look after itself as soon as the lock system was completed, and needed but a little intelligent assistance in order to behave well during the wettest years. This help has never been given: and instead of a single acre of flood land being provided for the use of the river, thousands of acres have been gradually abstracted from it.
Of late indeed not a year passes during which some reclamation of flood land does not take place. The river is thus ' cabined, cribbed, confined,' until its waters have no lateral outlet, but are forced to pour down the main stream and cause dangerous and damaging inundations in the lower reaches above Richmond. Thus floods at Windsor may be caused by the walling off of flood lands above Oxford or Reacting: and floods at Kingston from the reclamation of low lying meadows at Windsor.
A river without flood lands is simply akin to a railway without sidings; and disorganisation is a natural consequence.
As the principle alone is being discussed, no object can be gained by the citation of glaring examples. These are very evident and must occur to a man who even takes a long cycle ride along the banks of a river. In one place, it is an old creek leading to a large pond which has been piled off by a private landowner, and the pond in the rear filled up and done away with. In another, it is the low lying swampy- bank that has been artificially raised perhaps four feet by a house proprietor in order to prevent his garden from being annually submerged. (You can hardly tell him now that the garden ought never to have been there). In a third it is a long asphalte wall, ten feet high, erected by a speculative builder, n order to turn what was a river side snipe swamp into an eligible building site.
Thus acre by acre, and year by year, the abstraction goes on under everyone's eyes; just as the abstraction of common land used to, until a river has no reserves at all, and the soil on either side of it is drained and dry from decade to decade. Why, even the flood arches of bridges may be seen let to boat builders, or coal merchants, in many places; who no doubt complain bitterly, and think of compensation, should a drop of flood water ever dare to trickle through their premises. The irony of it strikes nobody.
Leave the Thames, and turn to any and every other river, stream, brook, or ditch in the country. Even look at them from the train window along a railway route familiar to you from boyhood, and carry your memory back as far as you can. Has any one of them increased in volume during the past fifteen or twenty years? has anyone suffered less than a twenty per cent, shrinkage?
On either side of the railway line, one can note the changed and changing features of country. The swamp of a dozen years ago, where clumps of marsh marigold stood out like brass headed nails from the dull dark earth visible half a mile away, has had a deep herring bone drain cut through it, which conducts the old water storage, gallon by gallon along the edge of the lower field, into a ditch; and ultimately into a brook. These same drains will now serve to conduct the very next shower of rain down the same well worn channel, and all within half an hour; whereas nature had been accustomed to something more like the pace of a glacier.
It would seem as though some harm to agriculture must result later on if this drainage is continued in so wholesale and systematic a manner.
We can only have cattle upon a thousand hills, provided we have streams in a hundred valleys.
These streams too, if they are never to fail, must look to waters held in solution in meadows and swamps - -waters which are given up to the streams so slowly and grudgingly, that the fierce months of a dry summer have completed their season before the last drop has percolated from the swamp to the ditch, or has been licked up in evaporation.
For a long period the gradual drainage of this country must have added millions to the natural wealth. Roman England sounds like a series of high pitched camps and military roads dominating a country of wooded morasses. From even earlier traces than this London appears as a pile village not unlike those of Malaya or New Guinea. No doubt the rivers needed curbing and taming all through the bad old days, even the bad old coaching days, but we do not want to improve them altogether off the face of the country. Many small streams have suffered this fate, their names serving as grave stones in certain districts. The old anglers who caught trout in the West-bourne, or the Tye-bourne (Tyburn) would lose their bearings to-day if set down on the spot of their old pastime; just as we shall a generation hence when he visiting places where we netted winnows, or caught small trout on a worm, as boys.
Overwhelming evidence as to the conversion of swamp or flood land into grass or building sites can be gathered from the most cursory study of bird life in England during the last hundred years. The bittern has been treated like the Tasmaninn until he is nearly or quite extinct in most places outside the Fen country. Bewick, and the early editions of Yarrell, tell a different tale from Seebohm as to the range and number of the gralhtores or wading birds. No one can look through the inimitable woodcuts of Bewick without being struck by the bird life in the swamps. Snipe, coots, and all kinds of duck appear to have been numerous on the flood lands of every river in the kingdom
The Angler's Outlook.
I remember sitting at a Geographical Society's dinner alongside a stranger when good fortune introduced the topic of fly fishing between us. I had been saying what a charming thing it would be to have the lease or the ownership of a long stretch of small brook, and to widen, deepen, and dam it, until it became a trout stream - to form your own bends and small weirs, to plant its sides just as you thought would be suited to the fish, and perhaps even to have a hatchery adjoining.
After listening for some time he quietly- remarked that he had just lately done all this ' to a small stream called the Lathkill in Derbyshire.' It all sounded to me as delightful as a fairy tale, read to the children just before bedtime, which you cannot help listening to from the writing table. I told him that in Devonshire we called ' a nice fish ' one of eight ounces, and ' a good fish ' one of twelve or over. ' Well, if you will come and fish my water one Saturday and Monday, I have no doubt you will do much better than that. We should use those terms for trout just double the size. My daughter has caught one of nearly two pounds.'
A few short years afterwards I saw the death of his wife in the paper; and later on his own. Rut I have often fancied and fished his fairy- stream from the library armchair, reconstructing his small lodge and all the pools and dams he formed. It must have been intense pleasure to him after a busy life. I wonder who has it now.
Since the early part of this chapter was written in the Pall Matt Gazette (who have kindly given me permission to reproduce it) in 1899, a great deal has been done by certain angling associations and hotels to prevent this wasting of the water supply and its inevitable consequence. While they look after an actual river however, they can do little with the adjoining lands. They are powerless to prevent the swamps, which hold, like a sponge, thousands of tons of water, from being drained. While they are conserving the cash in hand, someone else is tampering with the bank balance. None of us want to see fly fishing die out, like hawking, as an English sport. But it is extremely difficult to know how it can hold its own for another thirty years with alt the troubles that threaten it. While the quantity of the water is decreasing, its quality- is being tried by chemical works or drainage, and by tar refuse from the newly treated roads - two factors which must kill out game fish from many a stream otherwise well suited to their requirements.