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Calls for campaign support to repair 'biblical catastrophe' at Grand Western Canal

By MDGPatrick  |  Posted: December 01, 2012

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REPAIRS to the Grand Western Canal are hoped will be achieved before its 200th anniversary if a multi-million campaign to foot the bill proves to be a success.

Halberton residents were told their community spirit is needed more than ever in order to overcome the recent embankment collapse, which caused 80 million litres of water to flood into fields on the north side of the waterway.

The Grand Western Canal Rescue Fund launched at the village hall this morning and Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and Devon county councillors Des Hannon and Ray Radford all pledged to do everything in their power to secure cash for the cause, which was met by rapturous applause.

Cllr Hannon, who represents Tiverton East, hopes to inject £10,000 which is left over from the council's Exeter airport sale into the campaign. He said he does not want to see a huge hole in the canal on its milestone birthday in two years' time.

He added: "The fact we have this campaign going on really give us a good idea as to what kind of community Halberton is because it is not just an accident that happened in the community, it happened to the community, and the community is part of the solution to this problem.

"I have never seen the canal do what it did on that day, it was like two substantial rivers and a biblical deluge that created the lake on John Browse's land.

"The emergency services, not unreasonably, found it very difficult to understand why a leaky canal was an emergency – one-tonne blocks of earth were flooding away into an abyss and people were standing on top of it.

"The biggest God send was that nobody was killed or seriously injured. The power of the water  was ready to take peoples' lives. It was a terrifying day and well beyond anybody's job description," he added.

Cllr Ray Radford, for Willand and Uffculme, said: "I will make sure they (Devon County Council) dig deep into their pockets because this is something that has got to be repaired – I will put some of my money into the fund."

Cllr Ken Browse, chairman of Halberton Parish Council, said the meeting was called to publicly thank those who prevented the "catastrophe from becoming a disaster" and to provide information on the repair operation.

He recently met Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who he showed a recent copy of the Tiverton Gazette which showed the devastation of the embankment breach.

He thanked members of the farming community, police, the fire service, Devon County Council, and the Environment Agency for the risks they took in securing the affected stretch of the canal on Wednesday, November 21.

Nick Bott, chief engineer for Devon County Council, said the breach has been isolated and water has been safely impounded either side.

Monitoring of any potential movement of the canal embankment will continue, but there are no signs of any problems at this stage.

He urges people to keep well away from the collapsed bank, and said those who wish to see the devastation will be able to do so from a viewing platform.

The lagoon was made up of between 50m and 80m litres of water at its peak but most of that has either drained away naturally or has been put back into the canal.

Geotechnical experts say it will be possible to repair the bank using some of the original material but an investigation will be carried out so a report can be drawn up for  consideration by the council's cabinet in the next few weeks.

Canal ranger Mark Baker said fencing and signage near the site will be regularly checked to make sure people cannot put themselves at risk. A close eye will also be kept on the water levels, which are 10-12mm lower at the basin in Tiverton.

Engineer Kevin Dent said "colossal" pumps from the fire service reduced the depth of the lagoon significantly but work to remove 200 cubic metres per day, 24 hours per day, continues

He added: "I have been a civil engineer for 28 years and I have dealt with quite a lot of emergencies, but this was among the most stressful."

Halberton resident Rob Farley, operations and services director for the Met Office, said Devon has suffered from relentless rainfall since April which has lifted water tables and saturated the ground.

During the peak of the storms across Devon, the Met Office said around 91mm and 79mm of rain were recorded to have fallen between November 20-23 by weather stations at Dunkeswell and Exeter Airport, respectively. The average for November is 116mm.

The figure of 350 homes and business across the county to have suffered internal flooding was described as an "underestimate."

Mr Parish said: "Whatever troubles there are and when the chips are down, we get stuck in – I have every confidence we will get this done between us.

"Once we have got it back together, we will have to watch the water levels a little more than before. It was over-topping for a while and we didn't necessarily see the seriousness at the time but this is not the moment to go into why it happened. What we have got to do is fix it."

Phil Brind, managing director of the Canal Company based at the basin in Tiverton, said: "We don't have an option to not go ahead and repair it. The reason for that is the water comes from the other end of the canal and if repairs are not done it would be unsustainable to keep the Tiverton end alive – we have got to go ahead with the repair for the good of the canal and the good of the county."

Donations can be made at www.friendsgrandwesterncanal.org.uk.

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