Working together for sea and land

FATE must have decided a long time ago that Karen Thomas was destined to work with the sea and marry a farmer – with one of her grandfathers a fisherman and the other a farmer it was surely inevitable!

Karen is a coastal advisor with over 12 years’ experience in estuary, coastal and offshore marine survey work. She is based at the Ipswich office of the Environment Agency.

She graduated from University of North Wales, Bangor in 1994 with a BSc Hons degree in Ocean Science followed in 1996 with a Masters degree in marine geotechnics (off shore surveying) and geophysics (soil science).

Before joining the Environment Agency Karen worked in both offshore and near shore surveying off Ireland, Lebanon, North West Africa and the Black Sea.

Karen moved to Suffolk in 1999, met her future farmer husband Rob White in 2000 – they were married in 2005. Rob’s family have the organic Peak Hill Farm near Saxmundham, where they graze a herd of South Devon beef cows and grow silage and cereal crops to feed the cows, as well as salads and vegetables

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They ran their own farm shop in Saxmundham for several years and they now they sell their vegetables through other farm shops in the area. Karen is a hands-on farmer’s wife helping pick vegetables and is on hand at this time of year with hot water and towels during calving! Karen and Rob are hoping to diversify further by opening a small camp site on the farm this summer.

Karen joined the Environment Agency in 1999 as a coastal coordinator, pulling together data and information on coastal issues and began raising awareness with local partners and the public.

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She was involved with the Essex Wildlife Trust’s realignment project at Abbotts Hall in Essex which successfully reduced flood risk and created new intertidal marshland. She also managed experimental projects in Hamford Water placing dredged sediments from Harwich onto existing saltmarsh, thereby recreating habitat whilst at the same time reducing maintenance costs on coastal defences.

Karen managed the Roach and Crouch Estuary flood risk management strategy and was involved with similar strategies in other Essex and Suffolk estuaries.

Karen said, “I’ve always recognised the importance of involving local stakeholders and partners in the development of coastal management options, particularly in relation to managed realignment and in 2005 set up and managed an EU-funded project (ComCoast) on behalf of the Environment Agency and local partners.

The project considered some of the social and economic opportunities associated with creating new marshes and mudflats, including new business opportunities for fisheries, farmers and local tourism.”

Since 2007 Karen has been involved with the review of Shoreline Management Plans (SMP) for Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

Karen said, “The shoreline management plans consider different methods of managing the coast for the next 100 years and we are working with a range of partners including Natural England, English Heritage and all the local authorities. My main job now is to develop relationships with our partners and the public to raise awareness of coastal issues and get people planning for the future. There are so many issues to balance, it’s a huge challenge and it’s vital that we work with people so there is an understanding of the consequences of different methods but also a change in coastal management can present great new opportunities.”

In particular, Karen has worked with landowners to ensure that they are at the heart of discussions about how we manage flood defences and the coastal environment around the rural areas of the coast as future. Karen has just been awarded some funding from Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to develop local guidance for landowners.

“At the moment we are working closely with landowners in Suffolk and Essex considering the options they have for managing coastal flood risk. This can include them doing work on their own defences, considering habitat creation opportunities and how they would plan for a significant flood event.”

“Through the SMP’s, we are working with a range of community groups at a local level and are directly involved with some coastal communities who are interested in looking at what their long term options are in the light of climate change and sea level rise. We support them but we all have to be realistic and come up with feasible compromises.”

Karen is also working with the regional and national Government to support the changes we need in planning and coastal policies to help our coast adapt for the future. She is also supporting coastal local authorities with Pathfinder projects funded by Defra’s Coastal Change programme in North Norfolk, Great Yarmouth, Waveney and Tendring areas.

Karen said, “In all my work we are considering how local communities can get involved in the decisions that will need to be made about their coast. My role is to ensure information is shared with everyone and support and promote discussion about all the different available options.”

“My job revolves around the challenges of climate change and sea level rise and how we can manage increased flood and erosion risk. This has to be balanced within the constraints of what is possible with the funds and engineering approaches we have. I’m working on this from a strategic level right down to talking to individuals who live and work on the coast. This is really challenging as often what might be best for the whole coast translates down to a difficult change for a few individuals. Everything is linked on the coast. We cannot hold defences around the whole coast forever, even if we could, we would loose many of our beaches and marshes as they will be washed away. This would reduce the value of our coast not only for wildlife but also for people who visit the coast and this, in turn would affect local tourism and businesses. That’s why it’s so important we discuss together how best to manage our coast.’

‘I have always wanted to work on the coast, it is such a diverse environment for people and wildlife, business and pleasure. It’s something we have to manage very carefully so that the wonderful coast we have can adapt and be shared with future generations whilst supporting today’s communities, businesses and habitats. It’s really vital that we work hard to find solutions together.”

Environment Agency website:

Customer services line: 08708 506 506

Incident hotline: 0800 80 70 60

Floodline: 0845 988 1188

E-mail: enquiries@environment-agency.

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