Working to turn the tide

Karen Daft, chief executive of Welland & Deepings Internal Drainage Board. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG070812-14MD
Karen Daft, chief executive of Welland & Deepings Internal Drainage Board. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG070812-14MD

IT WOULD be wrong to say that Karen Daft takes pleasure in the misfortune of people living in parts of the country that have been flooded in recent times.

However, it does give her cause for great satisfaction in the work she and her team at the Welland & Deepings Internal Drainage Board carry out.

It’s work that goes on day after day, largely unnoticed, in a world very few people take much interest in, although the dykes and drains that are so characteristic of this district serve a vital function.

To illustrate their importance, Karen, who is chief executive of the board, and Nick Morris, one of the engineers, show me a cross section of land through Deeping Fen between the rivers Glen and Welland. The simple graph shows that the land level in some places, in an average tide, is two to three metres below sea level; in the worst case, such as a spring tide, it might be as much as four metres below sea level.

Without the sea defences and without the drainage board – and the other boards in Lincolnshire – pumping water from the dykes and drains out to sea, it would be impossible to live and work on much of the land we currently use in this area.

The Environment Agency also plays an important role, automatically opening the flood gates to let out excess water, sometimes several times a day if necessary, and at the Spalding sluice, water is let out at every tide.

Karen and the team at the drainage board have been very busy during the months of heavy rainfall, constantly monitoring water levels using telemetry equipment, which links pumping stations and allows engineers to start and stop pumps remotely from their laptops.

However, it’s all about men, muscle and specialist machines when it comes to the board’s vital role in keeping drains clear so they work efficiently.

Welland & Deepings IDB alone has 631km of watercourse that has to be kept clear – it also looks after 24km of pipeline, 14 pumping stations and three tidal sluices.

Karen says: “We have a network of drains that are maintained and kept clear and we make sure there are no blocked culverts and that the pumps are kept in good order so that when it does rain water is able to get off the land and into our system and we can pump it if need be.”

The board has machines called Berky Spiders that walk down the water-filled drains cutting the grass, as well as excavators and other equipment. Where access by machine is impossible a team of men have to get into the drain and “swing the scythe”, as Karen puts it, adding: “They are seriously fit.”

The board carries out capital improvement works, such as widening or deepening a drain if there is a problem in a particular area. Most drains are owned by the board and where they aren’t, the board has the jurisdiction to work on them. Where dykes run through people’s gardens, the owners have a duty to maintain them. The board also consults on relevant planning application to make sure new development isn’t going to cause problems with flooding.

However, the work is occasionally more bizarre, such as when they are involved in evicting travellers from land close to a drain, or re-homing horses abandoned on the board’s land.

The board is also heavily involved in conservation work and is currently providing habitats for grass snakes, sandmartins, rare spined loach (in an area of land designated a site of special scientific interest), barn owls, as well as orchids and other wild flowers.

Karen, who joined the world of drainage as a rating assistant at the Black Sluice board before taking accountancy exams, says she is a “working chief executive”, involved in setting the rating, board meetings and all the other things chief executives do as well as going out to see the men working on the drains.

“I love my job,” she says. “No two days are ever the same.”

What gives her greatest satisfaction though is on rainy days when other areas are threatened with flooding and the dedicated staff at the Welland & Deepings Internal Board are confident that their systems are working to protect this area of Lincolnshire.

n The remarkable story of the drainage of the Fens is told at Pinchbeck Engine and Land Drainage Museum open until the end of August on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.