Trudi Lloyd Williams: Catchments and Floodplains

Environmental artist Trudi Lloyd Williams reflects on her work with rivers and the implications of how we manage our watercourses.

Even as the South Coast draws its collective breath after Storms Ciara and Dennis, Storm Jorge is set to imminently hit UK shores. Those further West along the Severn Estuary are manning the pumps, as the latest man-made river defence failed last night. This got me thinking about how we manage our watercourses: we have a myriad of ‘watery roads’, and being an island most of our rivers ‘exit’ the country by way of the coast, flowing out into the sea.

In 2003, while I was a student at Chelsea College of Art, I was also a part-time tutor at West Dean College near Chichester. I obtained permission, along with fellow student Malisa Sledmere, to create an artistic installation on the stretch of the River Lavant that runs through the college's gardens. The river is actually a winterbourne - a kind of stream that appears only when the underground aquifer fills to capacity and gushes forth in numerous springs, which join together to form the river. It can disappear completely during the summer months, as our installation was to discover, yet be in full flood in February.

I had no idea what a winterbourne was before Malisa and I embarked on our installation, which was entitled 'Stream of Consciousness'. Thorough research is mandatory for any Master's degree, so like good students we studied the Lavant from its source to its estuary in Chichester Harbour. We walked its upper reaches with my sister-in-law Mary Ann Canning, a very knowledgeable landscape artist and botanist. She identified the many plants growing there, in some areas choking the shallow water, and attributed the excessive growth to fertiliser run-off from farms. Other parts of the Lavant had been canalised, with vertical concrete blocks replacing the river banks. Here the water flowed at high speed as if on a motorway; there was no opportunity for wildlife to linger, feed, or roost.

Our installation was a series of linked, tethered, planted rafts that hydrodynamically moved with the current and the wind. We used indigenous materials and marginal plants to harmonise with the location, and monitored the rafts on a regular basis. On one visit there was a nest sitting atop my largest raft, but no bird in sight. The gardeners were very apt at teasing us - the weird arty students - so I assumed that they had created the structure. But on the next visit, much to our astonishment, a duck sat resplendent on her nest.

This taught us a very good lesson: if you place something in nature, even if it is floating on a river, nature will accept it as its own! When we removed the rafts we found that the avian tenants were not the only ones - snails, amphibians and fish were enjoying the cover too. We also learned that these islands provided protection for wetland birds in particular, helping them to avoid predation. We subsequently created much larger rafts that further catered for the birds through the addition of ramps and vegetation.

In the year 2000 Chichester, including the historic centre, flooded badly. An open bid to find an engineering solution resulted in the winning team, who were from Holland, proposing a interesting solution. They suggested redirecting the River Lavant once the water had reached a certain level, thereby returning it to its original course across the floodplains. It was the Romans who thought it a good idea to reroute the river through the town centre. A recently-opened section of the A27, which now ran Eastwards through the area, also created a marvellous dam for the water trying to find a path to the sea at Chichester Harbour.

As part of the research for our installation, Southern Water employees showed us features intended to manage the river, including an artificially-made reed bed along one bank. This diverted flood water, effectively mopping it up and then trickling it through the reeds to filter out pollutants before letting it back into the river. Other measures in villages further upstream included laying large pipes between properties and the river during excessive rainfall, because the sewer system was unable to cope with the volume of water.

It was feared that in these extreme weather conditions the water pressure would cause sewage to back up into the houses through toilets and sinks! It was therefore deemed necessary to let the neat, untreated sewage flow directly into the river. Unfortunately this is not a standalone experience: in periods of high rainfall, where sewers cannot cope, untreated water is sent straight into rivers, ponds and streams. As a windsurfer I have actually contracted infections due to sailing in harbours and estuaries on an outgoing tide.

Sewage incidents such as these are no laughing matter. During the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, the unbearable odor in a steaming hot London caused parliament to initiate the largest engineering project in the city's history. Engineer Joseph Bazalgette understood the management of water, and his sewer network design included the narrowing and reinforcing of the banks of the River Thames, which created the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments. He also diverted sewage away from the busy East End via tunnels that ran parallel to the great river.

The cholera epidemics that had plagued the city were curtailed after Bazalgette’s construction was completed and the River Thames made clean. Now, with extreme weather events and maximum rainfall, untreated water is flowing back into the Thames again - another engineering solution is required to bring sanitation back to our capital. It is a scenario that is repeated around the UK; as homeowners and residents of flooded properties will testify, the flood water is not fresh and clean but heavily contaminated. All around the country the mopping-up continues.

The River Fleet hidden in the sewers of central London © Getty Images

The River Fleet hidden in the sewers of central London © Getty Images

I also think we need to reappraise what we have lost through Bazalgette's sewer network, although it saved thousands of lives at the time. Our rivers not only provide a home to many aquatic species, but also oxygenate the land they pass through. Running water provides coolness and freshness - just think of the world's ancient gardens, with their fountains and water features in enclosed squares. In central London there are five rivers that have been lost from the landscape, diverted instead into the sewer system.

In 2018 the UK, and particularly London, was sweltering in a heat wave. The temperatures got higher and higher; night times were unbearable. An environmental scientist being interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme suggested that “we need flowing water running through these built-up areas.” I shouted my own answer at the radio: take the rivers out of the sewers! Think what London would look like, feel like, with those five rivers flowing through. Perhaps we should view it as rewilding; simply reinstating what we took away.

Spiny Seahorses and Ripping Yarns

Trudi is collaborating with us on an element of our marine project Secrets of the Solent. Together, we're working with local communities to collect plastic marine litter marine and transform it into an inspirational sculpture.

Learn more about our collaboration