Toddbrook Dam - one year after the floods

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 July 2020 | UPDATED: 19:16 29 July 2020

The now famous image of a chinook during the Toddbrook crisis (c) Barrie Scholes

The now famous image of a chinook during the Toddbrook crisis (c) Barrie Scholes

Barrie Scholes

Andrew Griffiths speaks to Fr Jamie MacLeod and to the Environment Agency head engineer who worked tirelessly to save the dam.

It is one year since storms struck with such ferocity that the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir above Whaley Bridge cracked and threatened to break, an event which would have spilled over 300 million gallons of water into the valley and destroyed everything in its path.

It resulted in what was described by Rachel Swann, Deputy Chief Constable of Derbyshire Police, as ‘the largest peacetime evacuations of civilians in the UK’. The Cabinet Office’s COBRA met, SAGE were called to offer expert scientific advice (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and the Civil Contingencies Act designed to give powers to cope with national emergencies swung into operation.

The response in dealing with the crisis and the logistical challenge of draining the reservoir down an already full River Goyt to take pressure off the dam wall while further storms threatened is now written with gratitude into the annals of Whaley Bridge history.

An Environment Agency worker looks on (c) Barrie ScholesAn Environment Agency worker looks on (c) Barrie Scholes

So too is the response of the community itself, as 1,500 residents had to evacuate, leaving only with what they could carry, while the chinook helicopter flew low overhead, carrying in ballast to drop into the hole that had opened up in the dam wall.

I covered the aftermath for Derbyshire Life, after the world’s media circus had moved on.

It’s a journalistic cliche to talk of ‘closely knit communities’ and communities rallying round, but in the case of Whaley Bridge it was a most extraordinary response. At the time I interviewed Father Jamie MacLeod, of Whaley Hall, a religious retreat just above the dam wall. It was he who first discovered the wall was starting to crack and alerted the village by ringing out an SOS on the chapel bell. Whaley Hall became a hub for volunteers providing food and drink to the emergency workers based at the sailing club below.

He had spoken movingly about his own and the villagers’ response and I thought it interesting to speak a year on, to see how the perspective of time had affected him.

Father Jamie MacLeodFather Jamie MacLeod

I also thought it would be interesting to speak to one of the engineers responsible for the safe drainage of the reservoir under pressure most of us can barely imagine. These people are often the unsung heroes, their stories not often told - we’re usually given slick, prepared lines by communication professionals. In this instance, the Environment Agency let me speak to Chris Wilson, Flood Operations Manager for Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire, who ran the Environment Agency’s role in the multi-agency response.

Working on these stories and speaking to those involved is like putting together a jigsaw. Sometimes, two pieces that may not obviously be a good fit can ring true and belong together. Here is one piece of the jigsaw:

While speaking to Chris, I remarked how incredibly well the different agencies had worked together in unique circumstances. He surprised me by revealing these agencies had rehearsed such a scenario two summers previously, on Dovestone Reservoir, right down to the emergency services being involved, including the military and the chinook helicopter.

‘We said: ‘this is a big risk for us, we need to prepare for it,’’ says Chris. ‘We fully populated that scenario, so it’s as real as possible. Similar to formula one testing - you test all the component parts, so when you get to the race you know that they work.’

Workers faced a race against time (c) Barrie ScholesWorkers faced a race against time (c) Barrie Scholes

The second piece of the jigsaw came days later, when I spoke to Father Jamie again. He revealed matter-of-factly that, one year earlier, he had been sitting in the Shady Oak pub on Long Hill with two colleagues, one a retired police officer. They were meeting to discuss matters regarding the churchyard at Fernilee.

It was Father Jamie who brought up the possible failure of the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir, and how they should react. He had felt a sense of foreboding since blessing the dam and the village in 2010. Father Jamie’s role, it was decided, would be at first signs to ring out an SOS on the chapel bell. One year later, as that water came over ‘full bore’ (to use his words) this is precisely what he was called upon to do.

A village priest and a civil engineer, two men who on the surface could not be more different, who in their own ways made sure they were prepared to play pivotal roles in events as they unfolded on 1st August 2019.

Talk to Chris about the operation and the tones are soon clipped and the language such that you could be talking to the military. That’s because, in terms of the approach and level of seriousness required for a Category 1 responder to a national emergency, such operations are carried out with military precision - the dry run for such a reservoir dam failure two years previously had itself been a year in the planning.

Worrying times for local residents (c) Barrie ScholesWorrying times for local residents (c) Barrie Scholes

‘The EA is the regulatory body for reservoirs in England. We understand the risks reservoirs can pose from an inundation perspective, which was the potential situation at Whaley Bridge. We know the evacuation has to be done very quickly when something happens.’ says Chris.

The talk is of ‘communication cells’ setting up in the emergency services and the importance of clear lines of communication, not just internally within each unit but between units and with the community too. I was interested to learn that such emphasis had been placed on working with and involving the community in the operation during that dry run.

‘We wanted to build trust with the community quickly and keep the credibility level high,’ says Chris, ‘They were brilliant. They got out when asked, understood the messaging, understood the seriousness of it, I can’t quite get across how good they were.’

While Derbyshire Police fronted the multi-agency response, this left the Environment Agency and ultimately Chris as Flood Manager to take responsibility for the draining down of the reservoir - I say ‘ultimately Chris’ because his line manager was on leave. Some may have found this prospect daunting, but not so here: ‘I am quite a pragmatic person, I just get on with it. You step up when you have to.’

The weather had been such that the Toddbrook situation did not come entirely out of the blue. The EA were on flood standby.

By the end, the EA flood team had been ‘running hot’ for almost three weeks, says Chris. That means they were on constant alert, 24-7. For those ten days, Chris devoted his waking hours to managing the situation - there was not much sleep to be had.

Reducing the water level in the reservoir was critical to take pressure off the dam wall, which for a time was thought could fail at any moment. To do this they released the water into the River Goyt. The problem was the river was already high, and further storms were forecast.

But they knew the capacity of the Goyt, and the projected rainfall, so turned that rainfall into a flow figure and worked out if the river could take the water.

‘At the dam, the pumping regime is adjusted to ensure we don’t exceed the capacity of the channel and risk flooding downstream.’ says Chris.

‘We put a lot of faith in the modellers. The Met Office and EA work together forecasting from data, from what is falling out the sky to the operational impact; that’s why we tend to get that kind of thing right. The accuracy has increased massively, in the past ten years certainly.’

Two reports have been published on the causes of the damage to Toddbrook Dam, one commissioned by the reservoir owners, the Canal & Rivers Trust (CRT), one by the Government, from Professor David Balmforth.

The Balmforth report concludes the failure point on the dam was the spillway, intended to take water away in extreme events such as those encountered during those summer storms.

The CRT was compliant throughout with regulation, says the report, but concludes: ‘both CRT and the EA have stated that compliance is not the same as safety. This can mean a reservoir and its owner can be compliant with the legislation without the reservoir necessarily being safe.’

There are some who find this unsatisfactory. Quite how threatened the core of the dam was with the benefit of hindsight - and scientific investigation - is one thing, but it was believed to be in significant danger of collapse so people reacted accordingly; their reactions real and legitimate.

I remember when I interviewed Father Jamie back then his voice often cracked with emotion. Does he still feel that emotion? ‘Yes I do,’ he says. ‘We came close to perhaps losing the village, losing lives. It is people’s livelihoods, it is where they live, it is their jobs, it is where generations of their families have grown. To go through that is traumatic. To bring in a thousand body bags, not knowing what the next move is going to be is not nice.’

Within minutes of Father Jamie ringing the chapel bell, and its subsequent amplification through the medium of Facebook, 150 people had turned up at Whaley Hall to volunteer their services.

At the time, Father Jamie had talked of ‘front lines’, and as a priest that is where you are. I took this to mean he had to be there for those in the community who leaned on him for support. I got the impression the experience had emotionally exhausted him. Would he do it again?

As we spoke on the hall terrace under the hot sun, the buzz of insects around the flowerbeds was intermittently lost to a distant screech of power tools from the works to repair the dam.

‘We would do it again,’ he says. ‘We would be there for the people. You hope it is second nature that if something went terribly wrong in the community you lived, you would be there for the people, and vice-versa.’

‘It is for people to say ‘this is our environment, we want something that is going to be safe for us and safe for the future.’ he concludes.

Chris has his own hopes for the future, and they are perhaps not so dissimilar to Father Jamie’s.

‘I am a civil engineer and we are dealing with what I would class as Victorian infrastructure that has stood the test of time and we need to think about climate change impacts on that structure going forward,’ says Chris.

‘It has served us brilliantly up to now, and I feel duty bound to make sure our planning for the future is robust so we don’t have to react to a situation like this, but we are proactive and look at the built environment to make sure communities like Whaley Bridge continue to be protected.’

Temporary repairs have been made to the spillway. Full repairs will take ‘several years and cost around £10m’ according to CRT.

On 1st and 2nd August the anniversary will be celebrated in conjunction with the CRT and Whaley Bridge Canal Group; held in the historic Transhipment Warehouse. 

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