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The Lower Otter Restoration Project – and why we need to act now

By Mike Williams, Environment Agency


28 NOVEMBER 2015: Just over two hundred years ago James Green, brilliant engineer and County Surveyor for Devon, wrote to Lord Rolle, owner of what would later become Clinton Devon Estates, setting out his vision for reclaiming three quarters of the Otter estuary and turning it into agricultural land. Green laid out in detail his plans to straighten the river, build banks, create new drains and even construct a canal linking Budleigh Salterton to Otterton. Lord Rolle was persuaded and the project started in 1810.

Today those embankments are nearing the end of their useful life. They are routinely overtopped by the River Otter in flood, leading to erosion and the need for repairs. The biggest tides reach the top of the bank, and it is only a matter of time before there is a repeat of the breach that occurred in the 1950s, only repaired with significant effort and expense. South Farm Road also floods, often for several days at a time.

Climate change is now widely recognised as a reality. On average, recorded sea levels around the UK are now about 15 centimetres higher than they were in 1901. That rise is expected to continue, with current forecasts predicting an increase of between half and one metre by the end of this century. Combine this with the other likely effects of stronger winds and bigger waves and the future for our coasts is a challenging one.

The impacts are not limited to the coast either, with more intense rainfall and flood flows in rivers expected to increase by between 5 and 10% as soon as 2025. Estuaries and the lower reaches of rivers will feel the combined effect of all of these increasing pressures.

For Clinton Devon Estates, one of the key objectives is to manage the land in its care sustainably, adopting a long-term view. It is this approach that has led to the proposal to restore tidal flooding to those marshes created by James Green’s embankment through a planned and managed approach to adapting to climate change, rather than reacting to a catastrophic failure. We only have to look back to the winter of 2013/14 to see how that can happen very suddenly, with effects that were expected to take years happening overnight.

The National Trust has just published an update to its Shifting Shores document, ten years on from the original. It sets out the rationale for a different approach to climate change adaptation, moving away from trying to build our way out of a problem towards more natural defences. This approach has widespread support. It also explains why we need to move on from simply talking about adaptation to actually doing it. The Lower Otter Restoration Project is an example of how this could work in practice.

The Environment Agency leads on managing flood risk in England and is now working in partnership with Clinton Devon Estates to define, develop and deliver the Lower Otter Restoration Project. As well as delivering long term sustainable land management, enriched wildlife and local economic opportunities as desired by the Estate, restoring the marshes to mudflat and saltmarsh could also compensate for those lost in the nearby Exe Estuary, enabling much needed improvements to flood defences to go ahead at Exmouth, Starcross and Topsham. The project will also help to meet Water Framework Directive objectives by mitigating some of the historic modification of the Otter and Budleigh Brook, as well as contributing to the England Biodiversity Strategy targets. The vision for the project is a naturally functioning and biodiverse floodplain that would enhance the local landscape.

Change is inevitable, and the problematic issues facing the Otter Estuary will not go away if we simply choose to ignore them; overcoming the many challenges won't be easy however, and will require working with local government and the local community to find ways in which this can be done positively. At a number of local meetings over the last few years people have expressed concerns about this project and the impact it may have on them.

These concerns and frustrations have been heard.  Over the coming months we are committed to strengthening and expanding dialogue and engagement on this project as our understanding of the problems and potential solutions improve. The details are still to be worked out, but with community support we hope eventually to arrive at a project design that can alleviate local fears, enjoy broad local support, and transform and naturally restore the lower River Otter providing multiple benefits for people and wildlife.

Options for future of Lower Otter Estuary go on show

24 MAY 2017: Members of the public are being given the chance to learn more about proposals for the future shape of the Lower Otter Estuary.

The landscape of the estuary today is the result of centuries of human activity. But the 200-year-old sea defences are now starting to fail and are becoming increasingly hard to maintain.

In addition, the historic modifications mean the lower River Otter does not flow in a natural way, which, together with poor drainage, results in flooding particularly around Budleigh Salterton’s South Farm Road and cricket club.

The Lower Otter Restoration Project has been investigating the estuary and considering the best way to address these issues, hoping to create a more sustainable way of managing the estuary, an important site for wildlife and the public.

The partners in the project are Clinton Devon Estates, who own the land, the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust charity which manages the estuary, and the Environment Agency.

Dr Sam Bridgewater, Clinton Devon Estates’ Head of Wildlife and Conservation, said: “We are working with local people and organisations to explore how we can best preserve and improve the downstream part of the River Otter, its estuary and immediate surroundings.

“We want to work with nature, rather than against it, in the face of continuing climate change which is resulting in rising sea levels and increased erosion.

“If we do nothing there is a danger public footpaths will be lost, and there will be continued flooding of the road near South Farm and the cricket club. There is a risk of damage to habitats and less biodiversity, erosion of an old municipal tip, and a catastrophic breach of the embankments.  

“In coming up with potential solutions, we want to secure and improve public access to the estuary, enhance habitats for wildlife, and restore the estuary closer to its original natural state, recreating around 60 hectares of wetland and allowing the Otter Valley to adapt naturally to climate change. We also need to make sure that whatever steps we take we do not increase flood risk to any existing properties.”

Working with engineering and environmental consultants CH2M, the project is now putting forward four options which meet the needs of the project partners, and wants to find out what members of the public think of them.

Dr Bridgewater added: “We have been working closely with local people for a number of years, and set up a stakeholder group which meets regularly so residents, councillors and groups such as the Otter Valley Association can contribute directly to the project.

“Now that we have produced four options which we believe may help us achieve our objectives, we want to discuss them directly with local people to see what they think.

“Full details of the options and what they would entail will be available at a public exhibition we will be holding on Wednesday, July 5, from noon to 7pm at the Temple Methodist Church Hall, in Fore Street, Budleigh Salterton.

“The material from the exhibition will also be available online the following day, and feedback can be given on the day or via the website, where people can also find out more about the background to the project.

“During this phase of the project we are also seeking funding, considering how best to secure the long-term future of the cricket club, and conducting further technical investigations. The next phase of the project would see us seeking planning and other consents from the relevant authorities, at which point there would be further opportunities for people to have a say on the proposals.”

Options for the future shape of the Lower Otter Estuary are unveiled at public exhibition

JULY 6, 2017: Four options for the future of the Lower Otter Estuary have been revealed at a public exhibition in Budleigh Salterton.

The shape of the estuary today is the result of hundreds of years of human intervention, but it is now suffering from poor drainage, flooding and erosion.

The 200-year-old sea defences are starting to fail and are becoming increasingly hard to maintain. In addition, rising sea levels and more extreme storms and rainfall caused by climate change are adding to the problems.

The Lower Otter Restoration Project is investigating the possibility of restoring the estuary to a more natural state, reducing the impact of climate change while creating new habitats for wildlife and improving water quality.

The principal partners in the project are Clinton Devon Estates, who own the land around the estuary, and the Environment Agency. They have been working with engineering and environmental consultants CH2M to explore potential options for the future of the estuary, and held a public exhibition at the Temple Methodist Hall in Budleigh Salterton yesterday (Wednesday, July 5, 2017).

The project’s Dr Sam Bridgewater said: “In coming up with the four options, we have ruled out a number of alternatives which are either impossible to fund, or the partners feel do not meet our requirement to safeguard the future of the estuary for the benefit of local people, wildlife and the environment.

“We have decided that doing nothing, or simply shoring up the existing embankment, are not sustainable solutions in the face of a rapidly changing climate. The Environment Agency is seeking to create new intertidal habitat to replace that lost to coastal squeeze nearby. This is the type of habitat that dominated the Otter estuary prior to the embankments being built, and presents an opportunity for us to consider other ways of managing the estuary.

“At present, the long-term future of the cricket club, part of the South West Coast Path and access to homes and businesses in the South Farm Road area are under threat from the impacts of flooding and poor drainage. We hope that this project will be able to address these issues, improve the natural environment and ensure that the area remains accessible in the future to the many thousands of people who visit and enjoy the estuary each year.

“We have been gathering feedback at the exhibition to find out what people think of the options. We’re also putting all of the exhibition material on the project website, so people who couldn’t get to the event on the day can go online to learn more, and also download a feedback form to send back to us.”

The exhibition material is available here.

Dr Bridgewater added: “Feedback from the public will help inform our decision about which option will be the best one to take forwards. Once we’ve analysed the feedback, we’ll share our findings with the Lower Otter Restoration Project Stakeholder Group and the public.

“At the same time, we are seeking financial support from a number of bodies which would enable us to move forward with the project.”

Work continues on Lower Otter Restoration Project

September 26, 2017: Work is continuing on proposals to shape the future of the Lower Otter Estuary following a public event in Budleigh Salterton.

A joint initiative between landowner Clinton Devon Estates and the Environment Agency, the Lower Otter Restoration Project aims to work with nature to create a more sustainable way of managing the estuary, which is an important site for both wildlife and the public.

It is examining the possibility of a managed realignment scheme where the River Otter meets the sea at Budleigh Salterton, because the existing 200-year-old sea defences are now starting to fail and are becoming increasingly hard to maintain.

The project partners, in conjunction with engineering and environmental consultants CH2M, put forward four potential options to the public at an exhibition in Budleigh Salterton in July. A summary of the feedback received at the time, and online via the website, is available at

Dr Sam Bridgewater, a member of the project team, said: "We are very grateful to all the people who took the time to share their views with us at the exhibition, and through the website.

"It was most encouraging that three-quarters of the people who gave feedback were broadly supportive of the aims of the project. Analysis has shown that Option 3 was the most popular amongst those who attended. However, there's still much more work to do to identify a solution which is socially, technically, environmentally and financially acceptable.

"Further investigations on the ground are now being conducted by experts from CH2M. The results of these investigations, along with the public's feedback, will help the project team draw up a more specific proposal. We look forward to sharing this with the public at a second event later this year."

Option 3 involves raising South Farm Road to maintain access, and moving Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club to a new home. It would see breaches made into the existing embankment, with pedestrian access maintained, and no alterations to the route of the South West Coast Path.

Local town and district councillor Tom Wright is the chairman of the Lower Otter Restoration Project Stakeholder Group, an advisory body made up of representatives of local residents and businesses and groups such as the Otter Valley Association, as well as South West Water, Natural England and the cricket club.

He said: "The public exhibition in July was extremely informative and very well run. The attendance figures show 144 people came along to learn more about the project. We expect that a further exhibition will be held later in the year to consider the next steps and I would strongly urge as many people as possible to attend."

For more information about the project, and to see a summary of the public's feedback on the four proposed options, please click here.


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