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Circular thoughts on riparian responsibilities

Recently we moved house to a newish part of the country for us. Out front, separating us from the road, is a small brook that weaves its way down towards a much larger river about a mile away. Very picturesque you might think and you would be right. We are host at various times to egrets, water voles, families of mallards and, on one occasion each, a kingfisher and a small trout. Happily for the trout these were separate sightings!

With these delights come riparian responsibilities, a new experience for us. Originating in common law in the UK these rights require that we ensure that the water flows naturally along our stretch of bank. We have two main challenges in delivering on this. The first is the ranunculus river weed (water crowfoot). Water crowfoot is a home to all sorts of river wildlife and as such is protected. While shady spots of the river will be completely clear of the plant, in the sun its tendrils reach several metres long. Quite a sight as they wave gently with the water’s flow and when topped with bright white and yellow flowers. Rather less attractive when they form dense clumps and hold up all the bits and pieces that float down from upstream, the second of the aforementioned challenges…

You can imagine the scene in the summer when my wife and I were in the early days of delivering on our riparian responsibilities. The first time we set about reducing the water crowfoot we pulled as much as we could from the water and we were amazed at how the water level fell and the flow rate increased across our stretch of the brook. We were also alarmed to see what seemed to be a large inverted wheelbarrow shaped mound of vegetation floating down the stream towards us. It snagged on our bridge to be caught up by another and then another.

We fumed as we realised we were victims of garden waste disposal from those upstream of us. If we were slightly flushed with our fuming it has to be said that the person who approached us from downstream was puce and spluttering. He was a fisherman from the lakes that the brook lets into. His pastime had been interrupted by an influx of loose water crowfoot. He rightly identified us as responsible and was developing a head of steam about reporting us to the Environment Agency until he registered the mountains of weed on our bankside. We went from being enemies to allies as we watched another flotilla of garden waste float past us all. The whole thing was something of a metaphor for life in which we are all victims of the upstream behaviours while being potential villains to the people downstream of us!

In the weeks that followed I went through a period of being angry with the unknown garden waste tipper. I swore vengeance, even tried to track him or her down and all around wasted a lot of emotional energy on something I could not influence. At some point, when less irritable, my mind connected with past awareness of Stephen Covey’s circle of influence and circle of concern. SC talks about how we should strive to concentrate our attention on matters over which we have influence. As he puts it, to be proactive. Instead many of us tend to expend much of our efforts within our circle of concern where we are reactive, a victim of circumstance or other people’s actions. It is not uncommon for this to come up in coaching conversations with my clients. I challenge them to think about which circle their thinking is based in. Very often this is a wake-up call that leads to them thinking more proactively, working from within their circle of influence. Yet here I was being reactive, railing against the actions of an unknown ‘foe’, being reactive and apparently not being able to follow my own advice!

With this realisation came the opportunity to make a choice. I could choose to stay angry but impotent - not a great plan! Alternatively, I could concentrate my efforts on delivering our own riparian role accepting that this would include dealing with some upstream behaviours. A third way was to take action to move something from my circle of concern into the circle of influence. This did actually happen in the past when the village owned the brook rather than the individual property owners. In those days a working party would regularly walk the watercourse to make sure that all was in order - they had the power to exert control and apply sanctions if people weren’t doing their bit. However, for me the direct action option was not really open as it would have involved trespass to determine who the culprit was. Some neighbours did take a less confrontational route by asking for consideration in letters published in the village newsletter, a campaign that did have some influence.

In the end I was pleased with the prompt to think of my own proactivity and how I much I work within my circle of influence. Maybe there was an opportunity for me to think about being more mindful of this in 2019, without going as far as a New Year’s resolution?! Our handbook on being a good riparian ownership had not made anything of how we might be prompted to self-reflection in fulfilling our responsibilities. However, taking inspiration from nature is no bad thing so I am grateful to both water crowfoot and flotillas of garden rubbish for providing food for thought!

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