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The Broads is a network of mostly navigable rivers and lakes (known locally as broads) in the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The Broads, and some surrounding land was constituted as a special area with a level of protection similar to a UK National Park by The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act of 1988. The Broads Authority, a Special Statutory Authority responsible for managing the area, became operational in 1989.
The total area is 303 kmē (188 sq. miles), most of which is in Norfolk, with over 200 km (125 miles) of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and sixty three broads, mostly less than twelve feet deep. Thirteen broads are generally open to navigation, with a further three having navigable channels. Some broads have navigation restrictions imposed on them in autumn and winter.
Although the terms Norfolk Broads and Suffolk Broads are used to identify those areas within the two counties respectively, the whole area is sometimes referred to as the "Norfolk Broads". The Broads has the same status as the national parks in England and Wales but as well as the Broads Authority having powers and duties almost identical to the national parks it is also the third largest inland navigation authority. Because of its navigation role the Broads Authority was established under its own legislation on 1 April 1989. More recently the Authority wanted to change the name of the area to The Broads National Park in recognition of the fact that the status of the area is equivalent to the rest of the national park family but was unable to get agreement from all the different parties. The Private Bill the Authority is promoting through Parliament is largely about improving public safety on the water and the Authority did not want to delay or jeopardise these provisions for the name issue, so the provision was dropped before the Bill was deposited in Parliament.
The damage suffered by this natural environment comes from a number of different sources. The main contributors are:
- Agriculture, both through eutrophication and irrigation - Sewage disposal - Tourism
When the fertilizers used by the farmers in the surrounding area are used, some of the nitrates wash into the rivers and streams by rain which then work the nitrates around the Broads. This increase in nitrates causes the river algae growth to bloom, blocking out the light and absorbing all of the oxygen. This lack of oxygen causes the river to die as all the life in the river needs oxygen.
This problem is worse in Norfolk where the flat land causes the rivers to move slowly and so drop a lot of nitrate-rich sediment which comes from the surrounding, intensively cultivated land.
Agriculture is also to blame for the low river levels. The farmers use the water from the Broads to irrigate their crops because the rainfall is low in the surrounding area (only around 625mm annually). A typical 500 hectare farm would require approximately 8 million gallons of extra water a year. Sewage adds to the nutrient rich environment of the Broads and has caused a significant loss in water life.
The majority of the Broads are open to public navigation and congestion is a problem in the summer months, when tourism is at its max. The main problem is the erosion of the river banks caused by the boats traveling up and down the rivers and, because of this, there has been a decrease in the number of fringing reed plants, especially around Barton Broad.
For many years the broads were regarded as natural features of the landscape. It was only in the 1960s that Dr Joyce Lambert proved that they were artificial features, the effect of flooding on early peat excavations. The Romans first exploited the rich peat beds of the area for fuel, and in the Middle Ages the local monasteries began to excavate the peat lands as a turbary business, selling fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. The Cathedral took 320,000 tonnes of peat a year. Then the sea levels began to rise, and the pits began to flood. Despite the construction of windpumps and dykes, the flooding continued and resulted in the typical Broads landscape of today, with its reed beds, grazing marshes and wet woodland.