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IWAAC Report: Britain’s Inland Waterways – Balancing the Needs of Navigation & Aquatic Wildlife

Published 2007


UK Government policy is to promote the sustainable use and development of all the inland waterways of England and Wales and to maximise the contribution they make to the needs of the nation and local communities. The Scottish Government has a similar policy for canals in Scotland.

The Key Conclusions

As a whole, the inland waterways system in Britain makes an important contribution to biodiversity and to aquatic wildlife in particular. In the interests both of nature conservation and of the continuing attractiveness of the system to its users, this contribution needs to be protected and, where practicable, enhanced.

The contribution of the system to wildlife conservation is far from uniform: at one extreme there are internationally and nationally important designated sites with legal protection, notably the Broads and some peripheral waterways (such as the Montgomery and Pocklington Canals) undergoing, or with plans for, restoration of navigation; at the other there are some stretches devoid of much nature conservation interest. The extremes constitute a small proportion of the whole system. The vast majority of it is of modest conservation interest and here the wildlife value and the attractiveness for users can, and should, be affected directly by how the waterways are managed and by other controls. With appropriate management almost all waterways can deliver some wildlife benefits compatible with other requirements on them, including navigation, often without incurring any significant additional costs. Clearly effort and any additional expenditure must be balanced against the wildlife benefits obtained and sustainability considerations but, in many cases, improvements in wildlife conservation value can be achieved at little or no additional cost by ensuring that this aspect is considered at the planning stage of waterway maintenance or restoration work.

The value of each part of the system for aquatic wildlife conservation evolves over time and all nationally protected sites (Sites of Special Scientific Interest or SSSIs) are subject to continuing re-assessment by the statutory agencies. Whilst both UK and Scottish Government policy is to maintain or restore SSSIs to favourable conservation status, a few SSSIs on very busy waterways have never reached and are unlikely ever to reach favourable conservation status even with large expenditure and resource input and the best efforts of the waterway managers. In such cases, it may be best to focus limited available resources on SSSIs where achievement of favourable status is a realistic proposition. Conversely, other sites may grow in importance and may justify legal protection in future.

Changes in wildlife value arise because a whole cocktail of pressures, as well as navigation, affects waterway wildlife. Physical alterations, such as the installation of weirs on rivers and bank protection, affect habitat availability. Water quality is important, especially nutrient pollution from both point and diffuse sources. The Water Framework Directive aims to address such issues by establishing programmes of measures directed towards the achievement of ecological quality targets in all surface water bodies and should be a major stimulus to improving wildlife value of the waterways system. Other factors affecting aquatic wildlife value include hydrological impacts (e.g. water diversion, abstraction and impoundment), fishery management and invasive species.

Many non-tidal navigable inland waterways are already managed to serve navigation demands, as required by statute in many cases, in an appropriate balance with other requirements including those of aquatic wildlife. Such a management approach, both sustainable and by consensus, is supported by the Inland Waterways Advisory Council (IWAC); it should continue and be extended to all waterways. There are a small number of waterways, both in use for navigation and with plans for restoration, where their importance for aquatic wildlife should be given extra consideration in their design and management, even as far as limitations on boat movements, boat speed or the type of vessels allowed.

Achieving a sustainable balance between navigation and aquatic wildlife conservation does not necessarily cost more, but where it involves significant additional costs these should be shared between those who benefit. Across the system, navigation and wildlife bodies need to be actively engaged at all levels of management and consultation, to decide on shared objectives, to agree on approaches to impact assessment, to ascertain the optimum balance for future management, to develop good practice methods and to monitor outcomes, if the country is to get the best value out of its inland waterways.

The Key Recommendations

Navigation authorities/bodies should:
• develop consistent and appropriate procedures to assess ecological impact in advance of works that may affect aquatic wildlife, at a level of detail commensurate with the risks to or benefits for wildlife in each case; for works requiring consent from the environment agencies or other bodies, these should be consistent with existing procedures and guidance used by the consenting authorities;
• in consultation with wildlife bodies, develop waterway based local biodiversity action plans tailored specifically to contribute to decisions on waterway maintenance and management; these may be very brief or more complex, depending on the activities being undertaken;
• bring together engineers (civil or marine), the waterway industry, environmental professionals (including ecologists) and navigation experts, including those within statutory agencies, to develop and implement appropriate mitigation and enhancement measures for waterway wildlife, while ensuring that essential works to the waterway are not prevented by excessive mitigation costs;
• produce Waterway Conservation Management Plans (CMPs) for the limited number of waterways (active navigations and those under restoration or proposed for restoration) with significant nature conservation interest and review existing waterway CMPs;
• seek to engage local stakeholders and statutory environment and nature conservation agencies, to foster mutual understanding on matters relating to navigation and wildlife and to work in partnership to develop and implement good practice;
• be active partners (directly or through the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities AINA) in contributing to the development and implementation on their waterways of the River Basin Management Plans required by the Water Framework Directive, to ensure that navigational waterway interests are taken fully into account.

The Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA) should:
• provide a forum for, and actively encourage, dissemination of the considerable experience of larger navigation authorities on management of waterways for navigation and wildlife to the smaller navigation authorities.

Development agencies, English regional bodies and all local authorities throughout Britain should:
• take an interest in developing the full potential of inland waterways in their areas for navigation users, wildlife and for the community as a whole;
• engage with navigation authorities, statutory conservation and environment agencies, landowners and the voluntary sector to agree future development and conservation plans for these waterways;
• ensure that appropriate protection and development provisions are included in regional spatial strategies and local development plans.

Voluntary sector organisations should:
• develop a more effective dialogue on navigation and nature conservation issues to share experience, develop best practice and to address issues such as coordinating the use of volunteers.

There is a particular need for wildlife non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to participate in the local and national consultation and liaison arrangements of navigation authorities, as well as responding positively to requests for involvement in waterway restoration projects.

Government and regulatory bodies should:
• recognise fully the value of navigable inland waterways in River Basin Management Plans established under the Water Framework Directive, making full use of provisions for the designation of artificial and heavily modified water bodies and setting alternative objectives as appropriate, thus ensuring that navigation authorities are not subjected to disproportionate costs.

Waterway related businesses should:
• contribute to the protection of the waterway environment by adopting good practices which avoid damage to wildlife and minimise water pollution, and by encouraging their customers to do the same.

IWAC will:
• keep this matter under regular review to identify changes and, where possible, anticipate problems.