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Ouse or Hundred Foot Washes History and Management Overview


During the 17th century extensive drainage works were undertaken throughout a vast area of the fenlands of eastern England in what became known as "The Great Level of the Fens", of which over 300,000 acres later became known as "The Bedford Level"

One of the principal engineers was a Dutchman, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, and this web-site is about just one small part of his works, the creation of a 6,000-acre floodplain or reservoir, commonly known now as "The Ouse Washes" but originally named the Hundred Foot Washes (and still known as that by many) formed in 1652 when Vermuyden completed the second of two major drainage schemes in this area, the cutting of the Hundred Foot Drain, later also known as the New Bedford River.

The Bedford name
The Old & New Bedford Rivers, and the Bedford Level are named after the 4th Earl of Bedford who financed much of the works.
However, the Bedford Ouse, the alternative name for the south-west section of the Great Ouse that flows into the Bedford Rivers, is named after the upstream town & county of Bedford through which it flows.
The attempt started 20 or so years earlier to drain the marshy lands through which the Great Ouse River flowed by cutting the Bedford River (later re-named the Old Bedford River) completed in 1637, was not a success. That work provided a shorter channel to the sea, but was unable to contain the upstream floodwaters nor high tides coming in from the sea at Kings Lynn. Although Vermuyden is usually credited with that work,  Margaret Albright Knittle writing in 2007 cited evidence that he was not involved. In fact it probably wasn't even his idea, the cut having been proposed by others, including Hunt in 1604. More of that later.

However,  it was certainly Vermuyden's idea to create a huge temporary floodwater storage area surrounded by rivers, achieved by cutting another new channel, the Hundred Foot/New Bedford River, as described above, and constructing high 'barrier' banks on the  outer sides of the enclosing rivers, and lower inner banks over which water could flow during flood conditions on to the lands between them. There the water could be held in the wash lands or washes, until river flows and tidal conditions were low enough to allow drainage back into the rivers.

Funding and Management History

The first works, from 1630 to 1652, were funded by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford; his son William, who became the 5th Earl; and 12 other wealthy men. They were known as "adventurers" - venture capitalists in modern language - and formed the Company of Adventuers.

Annual taxes to finance maintenance and future works were levied on the newly drained lands awarded to the adventurers. For many adventurers their share of the expenses plus the taxes due outweighed income from the lands, and many were bankrupted.

In 1663 control and funding was passed to the Bedford Level Corporation, a much more formal organisation created that year specifically for that purpose. During the next 250 or so years the BLC's responsibilities gradually diminished, and it was wound up in 1920. The BLC had always had financial problems because its funding came from rates on only part of the area it had to maintain. Subsequent bodies were relieved of that problem but still had/have restrictions imposed by upland areas and central government funding.

The table below briefly summarises the management bodies over the years and their responsibilities. Like the rest of this page this is a draft - much has to be added, and corrections made!

from to name inits main responsibities
  1663 Commissioners of Sewers COS land drainage
1630 1652 Company of Adventurers COA construction of new drainage systems
1663 1920 Bedford Level Corporation BLC Established under the General Draining Act, 1663 to maintain drainage & navigation on all three levels.
Lost resp for most of NL 1753 and all by 1857
Lost resp for most of Middle Level (ML) in 1810, more 1844 and all by 1864
Lost resp for much of South Level (SL) in 1830 and all by 1920
According to Summers, by 1850 resp was confined to major channels & sluices
1920 1930 Ouse Drainage Board ODB Est under the Land Drainage (Ouse) Provisional Order, 1920
1930 1952 River Great Ouse Catchment Board RGOCB estab under the Land Drainage Act 1930. Drainage, navigation, irrigation, water supply
1952 1965 Great Ouse River Board GORB Established by the 1948 River Boards Act added fisheries and pollution prevention
1965 1973 Great Ouse River Authority GORA Estab by Water Resources Act 1963
1974 Anglian Water Authority AWA Estb by Water Act 1973. Privatised 1989
1989 1996 National Rivers Authority NRA  
1996   Enrivonment Agency EA  
Sources: various

The founding and workings of both the Company and the Corporation are explained in detail on the Adventurers & BLC management page.


Current management of the Washes

This is split between the organisation responsible for the main rivers and major water controlling structures around the Washes; and those which look after the dykes and controls within the Washes.

The main rivers and controlling structures

These are controlled by the Central Area of the Anglian Region of the Environment Agency (EA) from the following locations:
office address tel no. contact position
Anglian Regional HQ Kingfisher House
Goldhay Way,
Orton Goldhay,
01733 371811
0870 8506506
01733 464389
01733 ??

Amy Squires
Keith Stafford

External Relations Ofr
Telemetry Team
Central Area Office Bromholme Lane, Brampton,
PE28 4NE
  Geoff Brighty
Peta Denham
Area Manager
Area Fld Risk Mgr
Sub area office Heron House
Prickwillow Road,
Cambs CB7 4TX
01480 483685
01480 483727
Adrian Gosling
Rupert Wilson
Darren Trumper
Alan Daniels
Operations Manager (Huntingdon?)
Leader, Ouse Washes Field Team
Leader, Ely Field Team
Leader, Kings Lynn Field team
Sub area office Howard House,
40-64 St John’s St
MK42 0DJ
Denver Complex     Daniel Pollard Superintendent
Note: Names mentioned are just a very few of the huge numbers of staff in the region
e-mail addresses are generally firstname.surname@environment-agency.gov.uk

Operation procedures and targets are defined in the EA's Ouse Washes Water Level Management Plan (OW WLMP) as revised from time to time.

Lack of WLMP data on-line makes it difficult for those who wish to study, understand, comment on or judge the EA's actions to do so, as I outlined on my home page (see the system). That is why a website such as this is necessary.

The following is a brief summary of the establishment of OW WLMPs 1
Date Item Produced by for  
1970s Management Strategy (MS) report Nature Conservancy   scheme not pursued  
1991 - Aug
1992 - ???
OW Flood Control Rpts Mott Macdonald NRA reduction of summer flooding  
1992 - Jan OW MS Group (MSG) 2 established by English Nature (EN) & NRA   with input from HFW IDB, conservation groups, wildfowlers and farmers  
1993 - May OW MSG Intro Paper EN & NRA   aims & objectives of partners  
1995 - Oct consultation        
1996 - Jan/Feb consultation        
1996 - Mar OW WLMP 1996 Binnie, Black & Veatch NRA Not endorsed by all  
1997 - Dec OW WLMP   EA    
1998 - July OW WLMP 1998   EA Adopted  
2002 - Aug OW WLMP 20023 Halcrow Group Ltd EA Review & update 98 plan. Adopted  
1 WLMPs were/are prepared in accordance with MAFF/DEFRA procedural guides.
2 The OW MSG is the forum for reviewing & updating plans. (Source: OW WLMP 2002, para2.4.3)
3 The EA plans to revise the OW WLMP starting in 2009.
The drainage recommendations of the Flood Risk Management (FRM) Strategy will be incorporated to ensure that there are no conflicting objectives that may exacerbate the deterioration of the Ouse Washes. (Source: Great Ouse Tidal River Strategy (GOTRS) Review SEA Environmental Report, Sep 2009, Appendix A: Internal and External Plans Table 1 Relevant EA Plans to the GOTRS)

The dykes, drains and controls within the Washes

The Hundred Foot Washes IDB owns and is responsible for the 17 slackers (small sluices) along the west (inner) bank of the New Bedford/Hundred Foot River which allow water for irrigation to be taken from the river into the IDB's 10-mile long "header" dyke.

The field dykes fed from the header dyke and the controls on the field dykes, are the responsibility of the land owners or users, principally the RSPB and WWT.

The operational functions of these three organisations (IDB, RSPB, WWT) is somewhat blurred because the RSPB and WWT reserve/site managers are also Superintendents of the IDB.

A few of the wash fields are owned by wildfowling clubs and individuals who are responsible for the field ditches and controls.
organisation address tel no. contact position
Hundred Foot Washes IDB        
RSPB The Three Fishers
Welches Dam, Manea
March PE15 0NF
01354 680212 Jon Reeves Site Manager
WWT Hundred Foot Bank
Wisbech PE14 9TN
01353 860711 Leigh Marshall Reserve Manager


A complex and confusing situation

To describe reasonably briefly the complex system of managing the system to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of drainage, flood protection, irrigation, summer grazing, navigation and the effects of changes in sea and land levels is difficult enough.

Add to that the multiplicity of names used for the watercourses, engineering features and surrounding lands, it is not surprising that confusion has arisen, not just to the general public, but to historians and writers, and even some EA staff whose official reports often contain mistakes, all of which makes research and explanation a tad difficult.

Perhaps the most confusing of all is that the Old Bedford River (OBR) that arrives at Salter's Lode is not the OBR that starts at Earith. The original Bedford River, renamed OBR, was cut in two by a dam at a place that became known as Welches Dam. The northern section was connected via a lock to the Forty Foot, or Vermuyden's Drain draining from Ramsey. The southern section remained a dead-end and the means of  allowing flood waters coming through Earith Sluice to flow into the Washes.

Later, the southern half of the OBR was joined to new drain named the Delph River which was cut from Welches Dam running northwards alongside the eastern bank of the northern section of the original OBR. This combined river, known as the Old Bedford/Delph River, eventually crosses the washes and joins the New Bedford at Welmore Lake sluice.

At some other time a drainage system known as the Cranbrook Drain/Counter Drain  starting near Colne was joined onto the northern section of the OBR near the Forty Foot lock. From Colne, the Cranbrook Drain runs south-east to Black Sluice just north of Earith. Here, Cranbrook Drain can flow straight on through Black Sluice into the OBR, but under normal circumstances the water turns north-east at more than a right angle into the start of the Counter Drain (CD). The CD runs northeast from there alongside the western bank of the southern section of OBR, taking in water from the Middle Level fens to the west of the Ouse Washes. This combined waterway, known as the CD/OBR, is the one that arives at Salter's Lode.

The SW/NE orientation of the Washes also causes confusion as mentioned earlier, in that some people refer to the side nearest Ely as the south, others (including me) the east. Likewise the other side is called either west or north. Hence at Welney, the outer bank of the Old Bedford south of Welney Bridge is known as Bedford Bank West, and north of the bridge it is Bedford Bank East. Even though it is, to me, on the western bank of the river.

Even the current name Ouse Washes is not universally used, many referring to it by an older name, the Hundred Foot Washes, and some individual fields, or sections of The Washes also have their own local names.

You can find more about Rivers on my 'Features' page
Diagramatic Plan
From an Environment Agency (EA) report - click it to see a larger plan in a new window or tab.
If the area is new to you, it may be useful to keep it open when viewing other pages

Note the cross section shows the east to west slope.


The movement of water in the rivers and along the Washes is governed by several main control structures operated by the Environment Agency (EA):
  • Hermitage Lock at Earith, which effectively diverts the normal flow of the Bedford Ouse into the Hundred Foot River, allowing a small flow to continue along what is now called the Old West River. The lock also allows navigation between the three rivers.
  • Earith Sluice, which allows excess floodwaters which the Hundred Foot and Old West Rivers cannot hold to enter the Old Bedford, which then overflows onto/ into, the Washes.
  • Welmore Lake Sluice, 19 miles north-east of Earith where the retained floodwaters are eventually released into the New Bedford River when tides and river level are low enough.
  • The Old Bedford Sluice/Lock near Salter's Lode, 21 miles from Earith, which allows navigation and two-way water flow - excess fluvial water can exit into the Tidal River, and in summer water from the Tidal River can be taken into the Old Bedford for irrigation purposes. 
  • Welches Dam Pumping Station and Welney Sluice Gate which are six miles apart but operated in conjunction with each other. At Welches Dam, the two rivers on the west change their name and their function. I'll leave further explanation to separate pages.
Many of the operations are automatic, based on river levels monitored and recorded by a 'telemetry' system. Some of the parameters are set by law. I have begun to explore this important subject on my water levels page.

Gravity also plays its part of course, as in any river system, and when in flood the waters in the washes flow downstream from south to north. But in The Washes there is an extra dimension - the wash lands are higher on the east, so when not in flood, the field drains take waters westwards across the washes towards the Old Bedford/Delph (OB/D) river. The gradient is natural, and gentle, a fall of 12 to 18 inches (0.3 to 0.45M). This sideways flow has to be controlled and not allowed to simply drain into the OB/D because the internal ditches need to be kept filled during summer as explained below.



After completion of Vermuyden's second scheme in the middle of the 17th century the fens were adjudged to be "drained".  Vermuyden's work  had created 'summer lands' within the Washes for grazing and 'winter lands' outside the Washes for arable farming on the fertile reclaimed land. However, conditions were far from those we see today.

Despite the initial success there were unforeseen (but perhaps foreseeable?) problems. As the peat lands dried out they shrank until eventually they became lower than the rivers. By the end of the 17th century much of the reclaimed lands were once again under water for prolonged periods.

That led to the formation of 'Internal Drainage Districts' controlled by 'Internal Drainage Boards' (IDBs) which undertook on behalf of the farmers to cut ditches around fields to drain them and lift the water up into the main rivers with wind-driven scoops or pumps, and later by massive steam engines. The IDBs that drain into the rivers of the Ouse Washes are listed below;  note some may also discharge elsewhere, eg Haddenham, and Littleport & Downham.


Internal Drainage Boards

Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs), or (District) Drainage Commissioners (DCs or DDCs), are responsible for "low-level drainage", i.e, field drains and dykes. The EA and MLC deal with the "high-level" drainage, i.e the main rivers. IDBs have elected members, whilst in DCs or DDCs, all owners of more than a certain amount of land in the area can vote.
The catchment & drain details are as stated by the IDBs in 2010-2012.
Name district created/modified management assistance catchment area
structures1 maintained drains
      acres hectares   miles kms
Hundred Foot Washes IDB pre 1824 MLC 5,048 2043 0 + 17 10 19
Sutton & Mepal 1749 MLC 11,604 4696 2 + 22 36 66
Manea & Welney DDC 1758,1799 MLC 7.779 3148 2 +  5 22 41
Upwell IDB 1801            
Over & Willingham 19732   1,914        
Haddenham Level DC 1727, 1797   7,522   2 + ?    
Littleport & Downham 1756, 1800,1810 Ely Gr'p IDBs 32,242 13048      
1 Pumping stations + other water control structures, eg slackers, sluices.
2 Over district created 1837; amalgamated with Willingham 1973

Chronology, Time Line

year month     refs
1604   Hunt proposed a new cut from Erith (Earith) to Salters Lode.  
1630 Jan Lyn Law Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, contracted to drain the Great Level, later known as the Bedford Level(s), within 6 yrs  
1631 Feb Indenture of 14 parts Incorporation of the Company of Adventurers to fund the works  
c1632 to
  Seventy Foot or (Old) Bedford River dug from Erith (Earith) to Salters Lode, to be the new route for the Great Ouse  
c1630   (Old) Bedford Sluice built at Salters Lode at end of (Old) Bedford river to prevent tidal inflow into the new cut from the Great Ouse  
c1630   Salters Lode Lock built where Well Creek joins the Great Ouse  
1637 Oct a Session of Sewers
held at St Ives
adjudged lands drained in line with the Lynn Law; awarded 95,000 acres to the Adventurers  
1638 Apr a Session of Sewers
held at Huntingdon
reversed, Oct 1637 decision; draining judged defective  
1638   Vermuyden's "Discourse" A plan to improve drainage prepared for King Charles 1. Vermuyden opposed embanking all rivers, instead cutting more rivers and creating washlands as temporary storage.  
1642   Vermuyden's "Discourse" published, with map  
1642-1651   Civil War    
1645   Oliver Cromwell appointed as Governor of the Isle of Ely. Formed a drainage committee.  
1649   Act of
(The "Pretended Act")
William Russell, 5th Earl of Bedford, authorised to drain land to make fit for permanent agricultural use.  
1649   Vermuyden re-engaged to do the "second stage"  
1650   Jonas Moore appointed surveyor to the Adventurers; compiled map of the reclaimed land showing the "lotts", ie the land allotted to each of the Adventurers, and how the original allottments were spilt and sub-divided many times, accounting for many (but by no means all) the Wash fields.  
c1651-c1652   Hundred Foot Drain or New Bedford River cut from Earith to adjacent to what became Denver Sluice  
1651?   Nine Holes Sluice built at Earith to block off the (Old) Bedford River except in times of flood.  
1651   Hermitage Sluice built at Earith to turn the Great Ouse into the New Bedford River, allowing only a small amount into the Old West River  
1651   Denver Sluice built navigation only possible when river levels were the same both sides of sluice.  
1649-1651   Forty Foot River cut from Ramsey to what became known  as Welches Dam  
1651   Forty Foot Lock built from 40 ft to OBR  
1651   Welches Dam built across OBR sth of Forty Foot, to turn water from 40 Ft to Salters Lode  
c1652     "second phase" completed creating the Hundred Foot Washes (later known as the Ouse Washes)  
1657   William Dugdale Commissioned by the Adventurers to write a history of fen drainage. Didn't live in or know about the Fens. Toured the area for 2 weeks, and consulted previous books, then wrote "History of Imbanking and Drayning" with a version of Jonas Moore's map.  
1661   William Marshall established a charity for Welney  
1663   General Draining Act established Bedford Level Corporation  
1666   Great Fire of London destroyed the Fen Office and most records of the Adventurers & the earliest ones of BLC  
1713   Denver Sluice collapsed first undermined by upstream floods, then demolished by incoming tides.  
1728   North Level became independent from BLC  
1750   Denver Sluice rebuilt by Labelye. Navigation lock added. Previously navigation only possible when river levels were the same both sides of sluice.  
1756   Welmore Lake Dam built to prevent tidal flows into the Washes  
1772   River Delph cut from Welches Dam to NBR at Welmore Lake. Presumably with a new Middle Level Barrier bank. (date: Dr N James 6
1824   Seven Holes Sluice built on OBR at Earith to replace Nine Holes Sluice  
1825   Welmore Lake Sluice built to replace the dam  
1826   Hermitage Lock on OWR at Earith re-built    
1826   High Bridge Earith built cast iron bridge over NBR.  
1827   Suspension Bridge built over NBR at Welney wrought iron chain suspension bridge. Area became known as Suspension Bridge  
1827   Sandys or Sandalls Cut from Ely to Littleport  
1828   Old Bedford Sluice/lock re-built    
1828   Salters Lode Lock re-built    
1830   Hundred Foot PS built Steam driven, draining parts of Sth Level into NBR  
1830   Samuel Wells Register of the BLC published 2-vol history of the draining, also a map in 1829  
1832   Delph Bridge new bridge, cost £518, paid by Marshalls Charity 15
1834   Denver Sluice Navigation lock replaced by larger one.  
1837   Flat Earth experiments on OBR Samuel Rowbotham's first experiment  
1838   Manea Colony established    
1840   Fortreys Hall PS built Steam driven, draining parts of Middle Level into CD  
1842   Glen House PS built Steam driven draining parts of Middle Level into OBR  
1844-1846   Railway line built with bridges, viaducts and an embankment across Washes from Pymoor to Manea  
1848   Middle Level main drain cut from end of 16ft drain to Wiggenhall  
c1923-c1928 Railway line re-built across Washes from Pymoor to Manea
1926   Suspension Bridge concrete arch bridge replaced the suspension bridge  
1928   Glen House PS Diesel replaced steam  
1930   Mepal bridges/ 1st viaduct built Old bridges replaced; viaduct replaced causeway road  
1932   Model of The Wash showing effects of tidal and fluvial flows built by RGOCB, Cambridge  
1933   Welmore Lake sluice rebuilt  
1937   Sth Level Barrier Bank "slipped" opp Welmore Lake Sluice 13
1948   Glen House PS rebuilt  
1948   Welches Dam PS built Diesel driven. Built into the ML Barrier Bank. Half way  
1951   Hundred Foot PS Diesel motor replaced Steam engine  
1954   Earith Sluice built to replace Seven Holes Sluice  
1954-1964   Great Ouse Flood Protection Scheme to protect South Level from flooding from rivers Lark, Wissey, and Little Ouse. Cut Off Channel from Barton Mills to Denver and (Flood) Relief Channel from Denver to Kings Lynn.  
1960-1961   (Flood) Relief Channel Cut from Denver to Kings Lynn  
1967   Model of Wash
GORA workshop/lab
demolished by GORA, 1967
Coldhams Rd premises closed
1973   Welney Gate Sluice built by GORA
(at expense of Upwell IDB)
1975   Cock Fen PS built by Upwell IDB 16
1976   Drought Act Earith Sluice drawmarks suspended
Dam (proposed) in NBR nr Earith Br
Flow of Great Ouse reversed,
also Ely Ouse & Old West ?
1982-1986   Denver Sluice re-furbished    
1985   Mepal by-pass built 1930 viaduct across washes and bridge across Old Bedford dismantled  
1985   Hundred Foot PS new Electric powered PS built  
1991   Forty Foot Lock rebuilt and re-named Welches Dam Lock.  
1994   Welney Bridge rebuilt    
1994   Delph Bridge rebuilt    
1994   Barrier Bank works Est costs: ML c£13m, SL c£8.5m 18
1996   Suspension Bridge steel re-inforced br replaced bow arch  
1998   Glen House PS new diesel? powered pumps fitted  
1999   Welmore Lake Sluice rebuilt  
2001   Relief Channel Navigation lock    
2010   Welmore Lake PS new PS to drain Delph in Spring  
2010-2011   Welches Dam PS Refurbished; New electric motors & pumps replaced the 1948 sets  
2011   Earith Sluice Refurbished. Radial gates repaired. Control building updated (?)  
2012   Barrier Bank works MLBB, Welney-Welches Dam(?) £1.1m 19
Notes and sources:
1 Samuel Wells, History of the Drainage of ... Bedford Level, Vol 1, 1830
2 W.Elstob, Historical Account of the Great Level called Bedford Level, 1793
3 Prof HC Darby, The Changing Fenland 1983
4 Prof HC Darby, The Drainage of the Fens, 1956
5 Dorothy Summers, The Great Level, 1976
6 Dr. N.James, Drowned and Drained, Inst of Cont Ed, U of Cam.,2009, p8
7 The Middle Level Acts, 1875
8 The Cambridge Region, 1938
9 Hansard
10 London Gazette
11 Bedford Level Corporation records
12 IDB records
13 John S Martin
14 Eddy Edwards
15 Tony Smart
16 Tablet or plaque at site
18 NRA
19 Environment Agency



area/location owner acres hectares
washes South of A1101 Welney Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) 2,428 983
 Cambs Wildlife Trust 456 184
 tenanted grazing 148 60
total washes South of A1101 Welney   3,032 1227
washes North of A1101 Welney Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) 910 368(2)
 Fenland Wildfowlers Association 200 81
 Spalding & District Wildfowlers 60 24
  other wildfowling clubs & individuals 648 263
total washes North of A1101 Welney  1818 736
total all current wash lands  4,850 1963
add Environment Agency landrivers and banks 1,087 440
Grand totalEarith to Welmore Lake Sluice 5,937 2403
Arable farmland (Lake Farm) Welmore Lake to Salters Lode3 ? ?
Notes and Sources:
1 RSPB leaflet 2006; Wildfowling club websites 2011
2 WWT site says 420 hectares, it could be an updated figure, but their site has contained so many factual errors over the years including a current statement that the washes were created in the 18th century, that I'll need to check that out.
3 This area was part of the original Washes flood plain/reservoir until the River Delph was cut (c1750s-1782)



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see also:



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see also:



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see also: Nature & Wildlife reserves


Recreation & Sport

Bird watching



There are many clubs and associations covering this subject, both in terms of current activities and the longer term planning and provision of facilities.

In April 2011 the EA carried out a study of fish species at 5 points along the Old Bedford/Counterdrain:  Old Bedford: Counterdrain Fisheries Survey Report 2011 which reported a 92% loss in average fish density since 2008.
The Angling Trust Eastern Region Freshwater Forum produced a report  detailing numerous outstanding problems.
My thanks to Kelvin Allen, Chairman of the Angling Trust for providing these documents.




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see also: Nature & Wildlife reserves



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see also: Nature & Wildlife reserves


Additional floodwater storage areas outside Washes

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see also: Nature & Wildlife reserves and Additional floodwater stoage areas both on the Features page


There have been some later modifications to the system, for instance introducing a third river, The Delph; making a new outlet for the floodwaters at Welmore Lake Dam, later Sluice, reducing the storage area to 'only' 19 miles; and building a water transfer station at Welches Dam; but the Washes still work today much as Vermuyden intended, filling up with flood water every winter so protecting the surrounding lands.