The Reporter
Issue 496, 23 February 2004
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Flood-plagued York threatened by drying out

York’s world-renowned archaeological remains are in danger – of drying out. The problem also threatens to cause roads to buckle, sewers collapse and subterranean gases leak into the air, unless a team from Leeds geography department can discover the effect of flood defences and new building in and around the city.

York’s flooding problem is well known but measures to counter it and building work in and around the city threaten to dry out the ground and an eight metre deep layer of organic deposits under the city – literally 2,000 years worth of rubbish from human occupation.

Hydrologist Joe Holden of the school of geography said that unless the ground under the city is kept wet gases may be released by human deposits decaying, sewers could collapse and roads buckle.

The new research project at Leeds – funded by English Heritage, the Natural Environment Research Council and supported by the City of York – hopes to pre-empt the effects of the deposits drying out. “It is essential that the research is carried out now before these sorts of things start to happen,” said Dr Holden.

In order to be preserved, the deposits must be kept wet. However, building flood defences and the construction of buildings leads to quicker water run off and drying out of the ground beneath.

Dr Holden said: “Changes to the city’s flood defences, the increasing number of new housing and shopping developments across the city, climate change, and changes to underground sewer and water pipe networks could all lead to the ground drying out more quickly. It is important that we work out how these developments change the way water moves below the city and how we can best protect sites that are under threat from these changes.”

One of the scientists working on the project, Miss Ellie Maxfield, said, “The project will look at all the potential influences on water movements above and below the city. Upstream in the Yorkshire Dales, land drainage and intense grazing have caused a more variable river flow. Downstream, tidal barriers have altered the river flows. These rivers both drain and feed water into the ground below York and so changes outside the city may be causing changes underneath the city.”

Some parts of York remain waterlogged better than others because of their links to old sewers or drains. Often old foundations or a Roman terrace may hold back water keeping the surrounding area wet below the surface. The research will assess how future disturbance may result in changes to water movements below ground level and therefore in changes to the potential preservation of the archaeological remains.

The research aims to establish the nature and scale of the problem and to determine the best ways of solving the issue across the city. It will bring together a wide range of relevant agencies and companies to deal with the issue.

The research is funded by English Heritage, the Natural Environment Research Council and is supported by City of York.

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