Whaley Bridge eight months after the floods
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 May 2020 | UPDATED: 07:42 31 July 2020
Whaley Bridge became the focus of world attention last summer, when the reservoir dam cracked and threatened to wash away the town. Now the reports have been published. Andrew Griffiths investigates.
It is a little over eight months now since summer storms swept across the region, with torrential rains cascading down off the moors into Toddbrook reservoir, filling it to overflowing and causing a crack to appear in the dam wall.
For a week first the town, then the nation, then the world held its breath as global media outlets descended on Whaley Bridge to report on a small town threatened with being swept away by 300 million gallons or so of water if the dam wall was to breach and flood the valley.
The situation produced the largest peace-time evacuation of civilians in our history, with 1,500 people moved out of harm’s way. It produced a strength from the local community and voluntary organisations few had known existed. Relationships were forged with the professional emergency services that will probably last a lifetime.
The town found a new emblem - the chinook helicopter, which flew in 500 tonnes of stone to shore up the damaged dam. The helicopter was immortalised on fundraising merchandise by local artist Ellie Kerr. Over one billion litres of water were pumped out of the reservoir into the River Goyt and away to safety in a delicate operation as more storms threatened - an under-appreciated achievement by the hydrologists, engineers and the Environment Agency.
Then the drama was over. The water level had been taken down, the dam hadn’t breached, and the world’s media moved on. The residents moved back and tried to pick up their lives. And for the Canal & Rivers Trust (CRT) the reservoir operators, the post-mortem began.
Two reports into the incident were commissioned, one by the Government, conducted by Professor David Balmforth, and an independent report by the CRT itself. Both were completed in February. Neither attached blame to the CRT, but neither completely absolved it of responsibility either.
The failure point on the dam was the spillway, intended to take water away in extreme events such as those encountered in those August storms. To quote Professor Balmforth from his report: ‘Overall, I have determined that the most likely cause of the failure of the auxiliary spillway at Toddbrook Reservoir on the 1 August 2019 was its poor design, exacerbated by intermittent maintenance over the years which would have caused the spillway to deteriorate.’
Perceived poor communication was noted in the report, however Professor Balmforth observed that, regardless, the poor design of the spillway meant it would probably fail at some time anyway; concluding: ‘CRT has remained compliant with the legislation for the entire time they have had responsibility for the reservoir. The EA has not had to issue any enforcement notices. However, 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 people in Whaley Bridge who do not think that is satisfactory at all. Some argue the CRT may have been following the letter of the law, but not its spirit.
‘I can understand people taking that view,’ suggests Cllr Martin Thomas, the civic leader of Whaley Bridge Town Council. ‘There had been concerns that CRT had not been maintaining the system, didn’t have a man on site, hadn’t repaired the slip way, so when Professor Balmforth’s report came out, I think their concerns were vindicated.’
Cllr Thomas tells me there was a lot of anticipation in the town, waiting for the reports to be published, with many wanting to be part of the process.
‘People didn’t know who to write to,’ says Cllr Thomas. ‘Some - many with engineering backgrounds - wrote to me, as chair of the town council, about what they thought was wrong with the system. I did refer a few on to Professor Balmforth.’
Talk to the people of Whaley Bridge and the impression you get is that pre-crisis the reservoir was something that was just there, a pleasant place to go and walk the dog maybe; a dam with a footbridge that joined the two sides of the town. But now, there is an air of shifting perception. Will the reservoir now be a psychological weak point for the town?
‘This is a very sensitive point and one has to take responsibility in commenting, because one doesn’t want to contribute to psychological harm,’ says Cllr Thomas. ‘The psychology of living near something like this creates a nagging worry in people’s minds, I think. We have a very good relationship with CRT here at Whaley Bridge, so it was all very upsetting for people.’
Normality returned to Whaley Bridge in stages. First there was the ‘euphoria’, as some described it, of getting back into their houses and businesses. Then there was the sharing of stories and dealing with the realities of the situation - some businesses that lost perishable goods found out that their insurance didn’t cover them, for instance. Then there were the unexpected benefits of the ‘disaster tourism’ that brought in business to the town.
But then, a certain anger and bitterness began to sink in that the circumstances that led to the disaster had been allowed to happen at all. It was probably, to some extent, all the pent-up energy that had been generated during that fateful week.
The person charged with turning all that energy into a positive is the CRT Community Engagement Manager, Gillian Renshaw.
‘We were acutely aware there was a lot of community spirit in that area, and we wanted to harness that,’ says Gillian. ‘However, there are still a lot of people anxious nowadays when it rains.’
‘Obviously the water levels are kept at a minimal level at the reservoir, but when the works are all complete the reservoir will be refilled. There is anxiety around that because I think people have had the realisation of what the consequences might have been if there was an incident, or if it had been more catastrophic than it was.
‘It’s about having those people involved, and making sure people understand the complexity of the reservoir. While the spillway failed in August, that is not the whole of the dam and it is not the reservoir itself, it is the spillway to guide the water away from the reservoir. While it doesn’t look great, and it isn’t something we want ever to see happen again, it wasn’t the clay core that was impacted.’
Gillian’s biggest concern was that the report would be released, but redacted. She tells me she prefers everything out in the open, to look at any criticisms in the report in order to learn from them, work collectively with the community and move on from it.
Since September, Gillian has hosted weekly community meetings, her trailer being visited by almost 430 people. She has been engaging with local schools and explaining the work of a reservoir and its role in the Peak Forest Canal system.
Popular suggestions for the future of the reservoir have involved sustainable energy projects and there is a real appetite building for such schemes, perhaps kick-started by the Torrs Hydro just a couple of miles downstream at New Mills.
One idea is for a hydropower scheme at the reservoir, and another for solar panels floating on the surface. These plans are being taken sufficiently seriously for CRT to be commissioning a feasibility study into sustainable energy.
There are also plans to develop a circular walk around the reservoir, building a footbridge over Todd Brook at the inlet to the reservoir, and ultimately the aim is to come right round - although part of the land is in private ownership, so that plan may be longer term.
‘There is a lot of interest around that,’ says Gillian. ‘We want to put the site back so that it is safe, but also better than it was before the incident.’
Cllr Thomas believes it is vital no corners are cut if the confidence of the community is to be regained.
‘I am sure CRT understands the importance of this, but somebody has to find the money; the CRT is a charity at the end of the day and their resources must inevitably be limited,’ he says.
‘I have no informed opinion about where the money is going to come from, but it needs to be done properly otherwise the community is going to be very stressed. If it is done to a world class standard, people can be reassured.’
The CRT and its contractors have fixed the spillway so that it is secure in the face of an extreme weather event. This will remain in place until permanent reconstruction of the auxiliary spillway is undertaken - which will take ‘several years’ and ‘cost around £10m’ according to the CRT.
The reservoir will be kept at very low levels until work is complete. Work will start in early 2021 and estimated to take a couple of years to complete.