Wojciech Skowyrski, Deputy Director of the Department for Flood and Drought Protection in Polish Waters, describes the pro-environmental ways of dealing with drought and flood and completely new perspective on water management.
Recently, the subject concerning drying up of Warta, Noteć and Narew is raised. What is the reason for this situation?
Currently, we are dealing with two phenomena which practically alternate with each other – drought and flooding caused by torrential rains. This is largely due to the climate change observed over the past few years. In our country, the periods of drought occur more frequently and become longer and longer. This is confirmed by meteorological and hydrological data collected for the purpose of our actions. In May of this year, the flood wave passed through whole Poland. Near the Old Town, the Vistula was about 6 m. Today, after six weeks, in the same place, the water gauge shows only 45 cm. The rainwater flows to the Baltic Sea too fast, which also concerns rivers such as Warta, Noteć or Narew. This is the problem we must face. Over the years, the water management in Poland was neglected and nothing was said about the need for investments in counteracting the effects of drought. For example, in 2007–2015, the investments were made only in the construction of dry anti-flood polders. Nobody thought about the drought. Only wet reservoirs, i.e. those where water is accumulated, are effective response to the retention of the flood waves and may be filled with water in the periods of the long-lasting absence of rainfall.
How to prevent such extreme phenomena?
Retention is a good way to prevent both flood and drought. It consists of accumulation of water in the environment through creation of various types of water reservoirs. From large to small ones, such as, for example, ponds and mini ponds. The local restoration of water and swamp area and creation of green spaces, especially in the cities where there are many impermeable surfaces, including – unfortunately – concrete and asphalt surfaces, are also important. This is where water flows off quickly, even if it rains, as there is nothing that could stop it. The green areas absorb water and slow down its “getting away” from the environment. In this regard, the Polish Waters educate in particular the local communities – we strive to convince citizens, local authorities, farmers, entrepreneurs and various social or non-governmental organisations during work meetings and conferences of the need for water retention and efficient water use. As the part of the Stop the drought! programme, we have developed the first plan to counteract the effects of drought. It will provide municipalities with the specific indications on how to protect the water resources and how to prepare for the possible drought effectively. The voivodes around the country have already been asked for their opinion on the draft plan. The public consultations will be launched on 15 August. For the next six months, we will have 15 conferences in major cities in Poland. We invite everybody who wants to know the details of our plan to submit comments and guidance related to the drought in his/her region. In the case of drought, the cooperation between the country, local governments and society is necessary. This problem concerns all of us.
How can we save the rivers so as not to make them stop flowing due to the drought?
It is essential to implement a sustainable water management, which is what we do in Polish Waters. We want to provide rivers as much space as possible to increase their valley retention. Obviously, there are places, such as cities, where this is not possible as the river had already been engineered (even 200 years ago). Wherever possible, we increase the river flow. We work, i.a. on restoration of the rivers, i.e. we restore their natural, original nature. Today, river concreting and “straightening” is not practised. We often build on old and proven solutions which are environmentally-friendly. When performing protection works, we use ecological materials, i.e. riprap and fascine which is a kind of wicker derived from the river valleys. It is used to make a bunches which are interbedded with the stone strengthening the river banks. Over time, such construction covers with plants. Owing to such activities, the water flow in the river returns to its initial state. The possibility of restoring the so-called riffles in the rivers, where water retains naturally allowing, i.a. the flood flow, is equally important in this process. The restoration of the river bed, the natural adjustable baffles favours fauna and flora, as well as fosters water retention. Such work needs to be done, otherwise the water will stop flowing or the flood risk may emerge when heavy rainfall occurs.
In addition, we verify the case of maintenance works. For example, this year, we do not mow river beds everywhere. The conservation of grass and vegetation in the period of drought increases the retention time, therefore the animals living in the river have a chance to survive the difficult period. The grass does not dry up and deteriorate, it retains water and releases it, possibly by evaporation, which is beneficial for entire ecosystem. Therefore, we analyse the need for maintenance work on the rivers, brooks and drainage ditches. This is a brand new approach. So far, the timetable has been applicable and independently of what happened, the maintenance work was performed. We will consider the weather and hydrological conditions so as not to lead to additional, unnecessary drying of the river beds. Our services, Water Supervision in Catchment Management Offices, monitor the situation on an ongoing basis. We educate our employees to prevent them from taking adverse actions (within a given period). During the drought, it is necessary to leave the shore water bed and adjust the higher parts in order to prepare for the upcoming of the great water.
How do the local communities receive the actions of Polish Waters?
In general, positively. When we meet citizens, we explain them the meaning of our projects, we see their great interest and even sympathy. The local communities, municipal authorities suggest places where small water reservoirs could be placed and where natural retention could be restored. The municipalities, especially those which experience the drought or local flooding problems, ale willing to co-finance such investments. We collect such suggestions. Many of them are already included in the plan for counteracting the effects of drought, as in spring this year we conducted a nationwide survey among local governments, universities, water and sewage enterprises and other entities related to water management. These suggestions will be included not only in the plan for counteracting the effects of drought but also in our investment plans. All this in order to implement them gradually, in agreement with our regional organisational units, and to find funds necessary to cover these actions; there are many possibilities – our own resources, EU funds, as well as state budget resources. Co-operation with the local communities is necessary to achieve effects in the form of better water balance, especially in the regions threatened by the drought. There are many measures which must be taken by Polish Waters.
I believe that we should all support the fish farmers at the local level. It is worth cultivating fishponds. The farmers take up water in the spring when the water level is higher and they store it. They support retention. There is an erroneous view that the farmers pollute water. However, for example, cyprinids purify water as they feed on wastes. Those who are engaged in the flow-through rearing of trouts, care about river bed and they understand its nature. We should treat farmers as our partners. They have a strong track record in breeding, taking care of environment and scientific activities, which is frequently appreciated abroad. We should also remember about this. It is also necessary to support farmers, especially as regards the choice of solutions allowing cost-efficient water management and providing rich harvests simultaneously. The plan for counteracting the effects of drought developed by the Polish Waters assumes the cooperation with farmers, breeders, local authorities, citizens for the benefit of small and large communities.
How to reconcile all these objectives?
Both guidelines set out in the plan for counteracting the effects of drought and actions related to implementation of the Retention Development Programme – which we realise – are consistent with each other. Contrary to appearances, the flood protection is closely related to counteracting the drought. Stop the drought! project aims at retaining water which falls with rain in the place where it fell, which slows down the water flow towards brooks and rivers. Owing to this, on the one hand, we reduce the risk of drought and, on the other hand, if the rainfall is particularly heavy, we reduce the flood wave size. This is how retention works. We will suggest construction of the large water reservoirs in some regions of Poland. In other regions, we will suggest small- and even micro-scale water retention. The interesting solutions of this kind include, for example, absorbent chests which may be placed under parking areas, large squares in the area of supermarkets or production halls. When it rains, the chests absorb huge amount of water. Such water is released gradually, it stays in the ground longer reducing the risk of drought, as well as it feeds the ground waters. This type of solution prevents the flooding in the case of torrential rain. We will recommend other methods as well. Instead of the cobblestone, it is better to choose openwork elements which will enable grass to grow and water to be absorbed. The surrounding ditches with flaps retaining the water are favourable solution. Another subject concerns retention of water in drainage ditches in order to establish irrigation and drainage system, rather than drainage system only. Such ditches were and are present in every town but frequently they are neglected or devastated. We should get back to proven solutions that were once applied. However, we cannot impose them on municipalities or private investors. We will try to convince them of benefits related to them.
You have mentioned the necessity of building water reservoirs. This always arouses many emotions. How would you convince people that this is a good solution?
In fact, some think that rivers should be left on their own and artificial reservoirs are evil. We have a different opinion. If such reservoir is filled with retained water, we can use it during the drought period and provide it to the citizens, if necessary. We can also release part of the water in a controlled way to give the aquatic animals and plants a chance to survive when the natural biological flow in the river stops due to the drought. The naturalists have to be aware that there are possibilities to support nature during the drought period. The rational water management does not need to cause harm to the nature. Example? Currently, all artificial reservoirs in Poland are NATURA 2000 areas. The whole ecosystems, including the habitats of rare species of water birds, emerged around them. A particular example is Jeziorsko reservoir on Warta River.
The barrage ensures stability of the water level in the area. The lands situated in a radius of several kilometres from the water reservoir and along the river will be irrigated. In addition, the groundwater level will increase. This is what we fight for to overcome the drought. Major investments such as Lubiąż and Ścinawa and Siarzewo are very much needed. They will help Polish rivers in case of environment-related issues. We have to restore the level of water in rivers and make it the same as it was originally. We have to restore bed retention. This is the first condition that has to be met. The Siarzewo barrage should be created on the Vistula River. Lubiąż and Ścinawa – on the Oder. We need to restore the river retention on the Warta River, third most important river in the country. The Siarzewo barrage – which becomes a hot topic – will not be reservoir with a huge lagoon, it will be maintained within the range of the natural valley. It will provide Kujawy region, which is highly vulnerable to drought, with water. The barrage in Siarzewo will offer pro-environmental solutions such as fish ladder which allows fish to migrate upstream and downstream. A hydroelectric plant – the source of clean energy – will be constructed on the barrage. This barrage will be over two times smaller than the one in Włocławek, which I consider to be right. Nowadays, it is better to construct smaller barrages, if only because of the existing and evolving development around.
The barrages restore natural, previous flow conditions in the river and the water resources become more sustainable. Throughout the year, water will be at the same level. In short, rivers will be filled with water. Contrary to the present situation when near the Old Town, the Vistula is 45 cm and in some places even 20 cm deep and resembles more a mountain stream than the Queen of Polish Rivers.
Why is coherent and sustainable water management so important?
By 2018, the water management in Poland operated based on different rules. Since Polish Waters were established, we have a comprehensive approach to water management. In our household, we develop flood risk management plans, water management plans, plan for counteracting the effects of drought. We participate in Retention Development Programme launched by the Ministry of Marine Economy and Inland Navigation. All these actions are very consistent. It is easier to manage and carry out the economy in a thoughtful and sustainable manner. In Polish Waters, we know what needs to be done. However, sometimes we need an impulse, we have to reflect upon our measures to choose the best solution. I believe that the combination of the two objectives: counteracting flood and drought, is a very wise choice which resolves many social, economic and environmental problems. Such solution requires intellectual effort from us, but we are ready to make it.