Living Well With Water Network Gathering

Some of the agenfa items covered in the Living Well With Water meet up

Living Well With Water Network Gathering
17th February 2018

‘We need to make York’s rivers friendly again’

Emerging from the My Castle Gateway work has been a network of people interested in talking about the Foss and the Ouse and how we might live well with the city’s rivers. To continue the conversation we met up at the Environment Agency’s new Community Hub at the bottom of Wellington Row. We started the meeting by setting the agenda together and below you can get a sense both of key issues and emerging questions and activities.

The Environment Agency and flood management plans for York
We began with Tom Pagett from the Environment Agency welcoming us to the Community Hub and introducing us to key issues they are grappling with at the moment. The aim of the Hub is that people know ‘we are not a faceless organisation, we are here in the centre of York and we here to talk through any questions, issues or concerns’.

The issues were facing is that water levels are rising and flooding is increasing. Seven of the last nine highest floods have taken place in the last forty years and the trajectory is for higher water levels and more flooding. The Viking Recorder near what is now the Park Inn Hotel shows 8mm rise in water levels per year and this rate is increasing.

The Environment Agency are planning for defences to work for a 1 in a 100 year flood. This means considering raising the current flood walls in the centre of York. However, Tom explained, ‘probably the last time we can raise walls across the city without significant impact’. Rather than solve the problem long term raising walls would ‘buy time for upstream water management such as tree planting and re-meandering (the river being made to go further to accommodate more water)’.

‘Today we’ll be talking about access to the rivers – I don’t want putting up walls to prevent flooding to also prevent access, and where we do increase heights we may also need to look at ways of maintaining access – steps up and over or by other means.’

As a result the Environment Agency are interested in understanding places where access is important. This led to our second agenda item and the questions:
” Where can you access the river at the moment?
” Where would access be good to maintain?

Access to the Rivers: Swimming
One answer to the ‘What would you like to do here in the future?’ question we’ve been posing through the My Castle Gateway process has been ‘swim in the rivers’.

York Wild Swimming network have been interested in understanding the histories of where people have swum in the past.

‘If we talking about the future of access to rivers then understanding past access is useful because these are probably the better places for swimming, because they are away from river traffic, or where depths and currents are suitable’

‘Maybe over time custom and practice uses have developed’

We talked about various places that are known about:
” Blue Bridge as a key point for getting in and out;
” At the bottom of Hospital Fields
” By the rowing club north of Lendal Bridge
” near Clifton Ings where there is a sandy bank and it is said to be 3 or 4 degrees warmer up there than the city centre;
” Fulford Ings, where there used to be a sandy bank, ‘you could walk almost out the middle of the river before you had to swim’.
” The tiled section of The Foss near Yearsley swimming baths

Two MA students from the University of Leeds, Sarah Illing and Hanyi Jin are going to be working with York Wild Swimming as part of the My Castle Gateway project to develop an oral history project. One aim would be to use this local knowledge from the oral history work to inform current swimming and possible the Environment Agency’s decision making process about how to manage both access and flood defences.

An idea for the long term legacy of the oral history project was whether it could become a walk led by York Voluntary Guides. Tom mentioned that he does quite a few flood tours around the city and talks about the flood histories. It was noted there is not currently much interpretation in the landscape about the rivers, their histories and where the water comes from – this oral history project could inform this too.

Another idea that has emerged is for organised swims in the Ouse, York Wild Swimming will be following up on this.

River Safety
We established now that it is not illegal to swim in the Ouse:

River Ouse Bylaws, signed 1989.

But, Rachel Lacy from York Rescue Boat did say it is often (when people need to be rescued) treated as a Public Order Offence by the Police. One place we’ll need to go to follow this up is the River Ouse Safety Access Group.

There is clearly an issued with how to increase river safety awareness. This was noted as being as much about education as anything else. York Rescue Boat already do a lot in schools but are keen to do more (especially as, when asked, schoolchildren say the biggest dangers in the rivers are “sharks and crocodiles”).

York Rescue Boat very consistently argue that they are for greater access to river rather that less. As Rachel puts it, ‘people will always get in anyway, but the better the access there is then the easier it is then to rescue them and get them out’. Rachel also notes that the lifebelts are subject to misuse and vandalism (the stations are numbered but the lifebelts aren’t making it hard to know where they should be returned to when found). Parking on riverbanks is also an issue when it obstructs lifebelt stations or prevents access for rescue teams.

One interesting memory that already emerged from talking to people about Swimming Histories is that there used to be long poles with hooks used for rescuing people all down the Ouse. No-one moved the poles because everyone swam and everyone knew how important they were.

‘When something achieves a critical mass, infrastructure that is needed to do it appears and can be sustained’.

Non-motorized boating
We then moved on to a discussion about boating and especially non-motorized boats, could both rivers be used for canoeing, kayaking and paddle boards. This was also popular throughout the My Castle Gateway discussions [link]. There was for a brief time when canoes could be rented from the Watergate Inn but they are not currently. It was felt the Foss would be especially good for learning to canoe.

This lead to talk of access to the rivers for boating (Blue Bridge slip, but access and parking is hard). It was mentioned by one of the group that on a recently trip to the Norfolk Broads, they had noticed that parking next to public slips was very common – people can carry a canoe/kayak on a car roof rack and simply need parking close to water access.

For the current CYC information on slip ways see:

How to enable lots of different uses
While swimming is not illegal in itself the bylaw states it is if ’causes any nuisance or interference to the safe movement vessels’ and so there is clearly a need to explore how to manage and enable different uses. An idea of a River Festival to demonstrate the difference uses and to develop better co-existence was proposed, and it was felt that existing users (eg the cruise bots) could be involved and engaged in the process. There has been a River Festival in the past but a search of current York Festivals page suggested there is not one planned for this year?

Environmental Quality
We touched on the issue of the environment quality of both rivers. The Ouse is much better quality than the Foss, where inputs include output from sewage works plus run off from hardstandings and car parks in York.

‘This would seem to point to (for the time being) to focus on swimming in the Ouse and paddling in the Foss’

‘Why is the Foss at the level it is, it flows very slowly, and is almost stagnant. If they dropped the level of the weir at the Foss Basin a little bit, it would encourage more water flow’

We also had a round up of wildlife spotted, from Otters squeaking and teaching their babies to swim to the size of fish in both rivers.

‘The otters breed on Wormald’s Cut’.
‘There was a Mink once but it was seen off by the Otters’.

Questions to take forward:
Who is responsible for different aspects of managing the Ouse and the Foss?
We know it is the Canal and Rivers Trust for the Ouse and City of York Council for the Foss, but what powers and regulation does this include?

What information is there on water quality published by the Environment Agency?

Could there be a public swim to take back the rivers and show they can be used safety if done responsibly?

Ask the Police, possibly via River Ouse Safety Access Group, about the use of Public Order Offence powers?

Why is the Foss flowing so slowly? Would a greater waterflow of the Foss help water quality?

Is there a River Festival planned for this year?

Leave a comment