Having successfully managed pumping operations through the wettest winter on record, our focus is now on our embankment and in-channel maintenance programme. The wet and relatively warm winter has meant we’ve had to adjust our plans.

In terms of in-channel management of aquatic weed, which is particularly important to those boating on our 160km of navigable waterways, this is what to expect in 2024:

Our weed-boats are now in the water and ready for the season. We have five boats – two as weed cutters and three as weed lifters. Ideally, we form two crews, a crew of three boats generally focussed on the wider waterways and a crew of two boats focussed on the link route.

Our ability to have two crews active during a working week is dependent upon:

· Weather conditions

· Mechanical issues with the boats

· Boat crew availability and absence

To maximise what we can achieve, we are:

· Actively re-deploying members of our workforce to be part of our boat crews by using contractors for some other activities.

· Aiming to bring in, train and use additional boat operators this summer.

· Looking to maximise boat ‘cutting time’ rather than ‘travel time’. This will mean less responding to ‘hotspot’ weed-growth reports from boaters which has previously resulted in lost ‘cutting time’ and greater ‘travel time’.

· Improving our logistical and fuelling support to our boat crews.

We will endeavour to regularly post updates on our Facebook page as to where our crew(s) are within our system.

We’d love to be able to afford more boats and more operatives to manage weed growth to the standards many of those navigating our system would like. Sadly, that’s not our financial reality within boundaries of the income we receive from licence fees and from our ratepayers. Many boaters remember the days when weed growth within our system was significantly worse than it is today.

Please bear with us, as at a maximum we can only be in one or two places at a time within our 160km of navigable waterways.

As these crews will blend experienced hands with novice hands, we aim to get a crew out cutting on the wider waterways starting wc 20th May where there is less traffic. This is so they can test and perfect their teamwork before working within the narrower, busier channels.

If you see our crews in action, please wave and say hello.

The Middle Level Commissioners are responsible for the regulation on the Middle Level navigable waterways as outlined in Schedule One of the Middle Level Act (2018). This includes within marinas connected to our navigable waterways.

Regulation and enforcement are a necessary part of our role as a navigation authority and this includes for the power to remove vessels from our waterways which are unregistered, sunk, stranded, abandoned or left/moored without lawful authority.

We see removal as a last resort when dealing with unregistered vessels. Whenever possible we will work with the owners of vessels to bring them into compliance, ensuring they meet the requirements for registration which, to help ensure the safety of all who use the waterways, includes boat safety certification and insurance.

Registration income is essential for the maintenance and improvements of the navigation services we provide on our waterways. Not paying a licence fee or defaulting on payments directly affects the service we are able to provide, impacting fellow vessel owners.

The cost of removing vessels is considerable and in our experience so far rarely recoverable from absent and/or unknown owners. This is a financial burden within our navigation account that reduces our ability to deliver other navigation services and improvements.

The first version of our boat removal protocol was published on 16th October 2020 and the second version is an update based on experience and learning.

The updated protocol is available here. We would value any comments and feedback on the updated protocol before we finalise it. Please provide feedback within an email titled ‘MLC Boat removal protocol version 2; Feedback’ to admin@middlelevel.gov.uk by 24th May 2024.

St Germans is the largest land drainage pumping station in the UK, working in combination with over 70 smaller stations, hundreds of km of drains and raised embankments, to keep our Fens relatively dry and protect local communities and the economy from flooding. We are hoping for a drier 2024/25 but need to plan for this being the new normal.

Our system operates in conjunction with over 20 smaller Internal Drainage Boards. We are each small, locally funded public authorities, governed by volunteers who also operate the majority of the smaller IDB pumps.

We are delighted to let our boaters know that we have now installed a water point at our office mooring.

Whilst our mooring remains a private mooring the section closest to our neighbour Fox Narrowboats is now available primarily for visitors to our office to use. This is where the water point is located.

If you wish to use the visitor space on our mooring, please pre-agree this by ringing Kevin Russell our Navigation Officer on 07725 134170 during working hours Monday – Friday. If Kevin is unavailable, please ring the office on 01354 653232.

A 30min water stop if there is space is fine. Please give us a call and we’ll meet you at the gate to say hello.

Our operational requirements take priority so we may need to temporarily close the space. Any use of the visitor space without being pre-agreed will be considered as unauthorised.

February 2024 proved to be a record breaker within a record-breaking year for pumping at St Germans, the UK’s largest land drainage pumping station.

In February we pumped 58,490 Megalitres of water at St Germans, the equivalent of the volume of 14.6 Wembley Stadiums and the greatest volume we have ever pumped in a calendar month. This follows January 2024 and December 2023 also being in the top six months for pumping.

One Megalitre = 1 million litres.

With one month of our pumping year still to go, 2022/24 is already a record-breaking for year for pumping at St Germans as of the end of February we have already pumped 203,323 Megalitres, the equivalent volume of 51 full to the brim Wembley Stadiums.

There is a large network of pumping stations that feed into our 190km of watercourses that all lead to St Germans. Being below sea level, 20% of land within the catchment is already pumped twice and 60% pumped once before water gets to St Germans.

We recently hosted BBC Countryfile at St Germans to discuss energy costs and electricity standing charges. It’ll air on Sunday 10th March at 7pm on BBC1.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001x7jh

For the period October – December 2023 we pumped 80,812 Megalitres of water at St Germans Pumping Station to protect lives and livelihoods from flooding. This is the equivalent of 32,325 Olympic sized swimming pools.

This is the most we have pumped at the station over an October – December period. It is worth remembering that a significant proportion of the water pumped at St Germans has already been pumped once or twice beforehand via our Bevill’s Leam Pumping Station and/or by other Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) via a network of over 70 pumping stations.

In the first ten days of January 2024, we have already pumped 30,453 Megalitres at St Germans. We also pumped more in December 2023 than in the whole of the 2021/22 year.

For reference, the proposed Fens Reservoir may have a 55,000 Megalitre storage capacity.

This is a herculean combined effort by your local Internal Drainage Boards.

IDBs are small public authorities constituted of members of the local agricultural and land management community along with members appointed by District Councils to represent the non-agricultural interests within an IDB’s district.

IDBs generally set their income rates based on budgeting for an ‘average’ year of pumping and generally hold small reserves to cater for wetter than average years.

Proudly managing water levels in the Fens since 1862!

Paul Burrows

Chief Executive

13/01/2024

Our response to OFGEM’s review of standing charges

We welcome OFGEM’s call for input into its review of standing charges. We feel that the Targeted Charging Review did not consider the bespoke needs and role of the Internal Drainage Board (IDB) sector within its concept and therefore its implementation has been unfair.

Here at the Middle Level Commissioners, we administer 29 smaller IDBs and 24 of which have electric powered pumping stations. We also own and operate St Germans Pumping Station, the largest land drainage pumping station in the UK. Across our portfolio of assets there are 67 electric meters and the standing charges have increased in total by 509% from £25,547 to £155,662 as a result of the Targeted Charging Review. The standing charge for St Germans Pumping Station has increased by 1282% from £3,915 to £54,140.

Paul Burrows, Chief Executive says;

“This winter is likely to prove a record breaking one for land drainage pumping here in the Fens with record volumes already having been pumped at our St Germans Pumping Station. We provide a critical public service that not only protects lives and livelihoods from flooding, but also protects key gas and electricity supply infrastructure.

The costs of pumping are substantial, and the increases we have seen to standing charges over the last 12-month have been punitively eyewatering. I urge government and OFGEM to reconsider their approach to our sector.”

Please see our full response.

Whilst the skies may be clear today, our drainage system is under stress.

Yesterday saw St Germans Pumping Station discharging 77 cubic metres of water per second. We have never previously needed to pump to this level.

There are still vast quantities of water within our system, being pumped into our system by Internal Drainage Boards and flowing into our system from saturated highland areas.

The weather forecast for overnight tonight is a cause for serious concern, with a worst-case prospect of 30-40mm. Even a more realistic forecast of 10-20mm will cause us issues unless we take further action.

We will deploy the demountable defences for the properties in Benwick as a precautionary measure during daylight today.

We will need to take the water level at St Germans as low as we can without risking bank slips in order to create the gradient in the system to be able to cater for tonight’s forecast rainfall as well as the existing water within the catchment.

For boaters moored in our main drainage system this will unfortunately mean you’ll likely experience levels fluctuating significantly higher and/or lower than normal. This will probably start to be noticeable this afternoon and evening. Please take suitable action to secure your safety.

Should the rainfall forecast materialise then levels will quickly rise and if the rainfall does not materialise then there is sufficient water coming into the system to stabilise the levels again tomorrow.

Given our changing climate, we need to explore if and how the Middle Level system could be operated more efficiently and effectively. We have produced a briefing to explain the background and context for a pumping operations trial that we recently commenced, with Storm Babet being the first test within this.

For 30 years Paul Grodkiewicz has been at the heart of our navigation service in his role as lock-keeper at Salters Lode. Paul has recently confirmed his intention to retire at the end of February 2024 and our plan is that Paul’s wife, Karen Hills, takes on the role.

I’m sure our boating community will join me in wishing Paul well in retirement and are very grateful, like we are, for his loyal and expert service. Many of you will already know Karen and I’m sure will support her as she takes on the role.