In 2013 a storm surge in the North Sea threatened communities up and down the East coast of the UK. Whilst many coastal settlements had benefited from flood protection schemes others like Waldringfield, a small village on the Deben estuary in Suffolk were left out of the loop and vulnerable. So when the surge came the inevitable result was flooding to the village.
Despite the flood there were no plans to put flood protection in place. Instead of taking a fatalistic view, however, the local community came together to raise the funds to create, not only an effective flood protection scheme (one of the first of its kind in the UK), but at the same time create a nature reserve to enhance the local area. This case study is the story of how this project developed.
What is a storm surge?
Storms along the coast can cause sea levels to rise way above their normal level which leads to coastal flooding. So what causes a storm surge? The two diagrams taken from the UK Meteorological Office site explain how this can happen.
- A deep low pressure cell (depression) moves eastwards into the North Sea basin.
- The low pressure at the centre of the storm “pulls” the water level up, by about 1 cm for every 1 millibar change in pressure.
source: UK meteorological office
- As the depression moves down the North Sea basin it generates high winds from a northerly direction. The winds push the sea water southwards and towards the coast, causing it to “pile up” along the coast, raising the sea level and creating a “surge”. This is a predictable event. The residents in Waldringfield knew 24 hours in advance that the surge was on its way, for example.
- The strong winds in the storm generate large waves on top of the surge which can cause damage to sea defences, or spill over the top of sea walls adding to the flood risk.
source: UK meteorological office
Waldringfield is a small village on the west bank of the river Deben in Suffolk, on the East coast of the United Kingdom. The village comprises 225 houses with a population of 464 (2012). The village has a village hall, pub, boatyard and is home to Waldringfield Yacht Club.
The maps below show the location of Waldringfield in Suffolk and in the UK
The 2013 Flood
On the 5 December, 2013 a large storm surge hit the east coast of the UK causing widespread flooding along the coast. This was a prime example of low pressure, high winds and high tidal conditions combining to create surge conditions;
- It was the largest tidal surge since 1953 and water levels were actually higher than in 1953
- Many East coast estuaries were flooded; The Stour, Deben and Orwell rivers all reported flood damage.
Waldringfield is on the Deben estuary and suffered significant flooding on the river frontage. The following is the list of damage:
- The river wall to the north of the village was overtopped, causing flooding of the meadow behind it.
- The boatyard and about 18 residences on the Quay were also flooded to a depth of about 5 feet, as well as several beach huts and land to the south of the village.
- There was one casualty, who was taken to hospital by ambulance.
- The fire service attended to a fire around 1.30am, which was caused by the flood water shorting the electric gates of a property on the Quay.
- A heating oil tank and a gas tank floated off it stand, but, fortunately, remained attached to it feed pipes
- The river wall was badly damaged in places, but it wasn’t breached.
The total cost of the damage and repairs was estimated to be: £10 million overall
The Waldringfield Flood Defence Group (WFDG)
The group got together informally 6 months prior to the flood. They were aware of the flood risk plus they were also aware that Waldringfield was not included in existing flood protection schemes for the Deben estuary. This was possibly because only 18 properties and the boat yard were at risk of flood at that time. (even though the real estate value of those properties is possibly above £20 million
Note: The village of Waldringfield stretches about 1km inland from the river Deben and the majority of the village sits well above flood level. The lane known as The Quay is the area liable most likely to flood in the village, see map below:
When the flood occurred, and with no direct help from the government forthcoming, the 18 affected households formed The Waldringfield Flood Defence Group (WFDG). It had significant support from a number of sources including: The Environment Agency, Suffolk Coastal District Council. The Deben Estuary Partnership, Waldringfield Parish Council, Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK’s Independent Committee on Climate Change, and the local MP, Dr Therese Coffey. Very quickly the group came up with a plan to create a two stage project for the immediate area area: this involved:
- an outline plan for the design of new flood defences; including a raised sea wall 1km in length, flood gates, and movable flood barriers to protect the boatyard (completed within 3 months)
- the protection and preservation of a freshwater meadow and marshland habitat north of the village through the repair and strengthening of the river wall.
- restoration of salt marsh which would add to the protection the sea wall.
Funding for the £1million project was achieved mainly through grants, including £633,000 from the Government’s Coastal Community Fund. The initial work on the salt marsh was partly funded by the Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Beauty unit.), and is visible at low tide. A further 1,000m of protection is being funded by the Coastal Communities fund at a cost of £100,000
How do salt marshes protect flood defences?
Salt marshes play a major role in flood defence. Salt marshes are effective buffers to wave action, by creating shallow water which reduces the power of waves. The wider the salt marsh the the more effective it is in protecting the sea wall. One study carried out at Cambridge University found that “salt marshes can reduce the height of damaging waves in storm surge conditions by close to 20%”
What has been achieved?
Stage 1: Raising the flood defences: protecting homes, businesses and jobs.
The live link will take you to the project page which details each step in the process. Stage 1 was completed in February 2015. The main points are as follows:
- A new reinforced wall was built in front of the properties on The Quay at 3.5m OD. Each of the riverside properties now has its own steel reinforced gate to allow access to the footpath
- A steel flood barrier was erected next to the boatyard. This can be closed by the Environment Agency in the event of a flood warning.
- Removable steel barriers have been erected in the boatyard; they will be removed to allow boats access to the river for launching but can be put in place in the event of a flood warning. (see below)
Stage 2: Raising the river wall: repairing a footpath and creating a freshwater wildlife reserve
The live link will take you to the project page which details each step in the process. Stage 2 was completed in October 2015.
The main object of the scheme has been to create a wildlife reserve on a freshwater marsh area, which was formerly owned by the local vicar. When he died his executors agreed to allow the conversion of part of the farmland to a lagoon and nature reserve.
The lagoon area at present is bare.. it looks like a building site.. but it has been planted with sedges and within a few years it will naturalise to form an attractive habitat for birds and mammals, such as the water vole and a family of otters.
see small scale map for location
After the flood there was concern over state of sea wall to north of village and the footpath which was also damaged when flood water overtopped the wall. So a decision was made to flatten the top of the wall and to widen the footpath.
The footpath is now much wider and more level as the photo below shows. Some locals probably feel that it is unnatural but access has been improved, and the path is accessible and usable all year. Access to the nature reserve will also be improved for locals and visitors alike.
the footpath looking north; now wider and flatter
Salt marsh restoration
The saltmarsh in front of the sea wall to the north of the village varies in width. Immediately north of the village it is quite degraded; see below but widens out . The WFDG scheme allows for the installation of brushwood fences which have been installed in the marsh in front of the sea wall. The hope is that these fences will trap sediment on the outgoing tide and help to build up the marsh in front of the sea wall to add some degree of additional protection to the sea wall and the footpath. There remains another 1000 metres of fencing to install to complete the job.
the degraded salt marsh
brushwood fences in place to protect the sea wall
Local community action: is this the way forward?
This scheme is the first of its kind so far as I can tell and The Environment Agency is keen to use this project as a pilot to demonstrate how local communities projects such as this one can be the forerunner for other schemes which fall outside of government support.
- The WFDG were successful because:
- they were already organized
- they had the necessary skills to produce a fully drawn up and costed project plan
- they had the skills to lobby for financial support
- they acted quickly
- they worked together and without internal wrangling/disagreement
2. The value of the community based approach was that they designed it themselves and so it was fit for their purpose; basically they got what they wanted but also created a scheme with significant utility and value to the village as a whole.
3. At the same time they turned it into a multi purpose project by:
- protecting the sea wall
- creating a much more accessible and usable footpath alongside the river, an improved amenity for all
- working with the estate of the recently deceased vicar to create the wildlife reserve which will be of broad ecological value but also will provide a real amenity to be enjoyed by locals and visitors and will add to the attractiveness of the riverside
I recently interviewed Janette Brown, the secretary of the Waldringfield Flood Defence Group and started by asking her to take us back to the night of the flood. You can listen to the full interview here: