A drainage board in Boston is facing a massive £20 million bill to protect eels - and fears money to pay for the work will have to come from the flood defence budget.
Witham Fourth District Internal Drainage Board says it simply cannot afford to carry out the work required under The European Eel Regulations to protect the falling fish numbers.
This would require a combined £20 million investment for two of its pumping stations.
The company’s chief executive Peter Bateson said: “The board are not happy that limited funds needed for local capital projects may need to be diverted to solve an issue that locally, is still unproven.”
He said the 13 boards in Lincolnshire would most likely have to apply for cash - including from the Environment Agency and the Flood Defence Grant in Aid Funding - to meet the cost of compliance.
Mr Bateson added: “This will result in less money being available for important flood defence works in Lincolnshire.”
He revealed they had already successfully applied for £100,000 for an ‘eel pass’ from this pot of money should it be required.
He said the first deadline for structures deemed to restrict the passage of eels to be compliant was January 1.
“Most large structures such as Hobhole Pumping Station were granted a five-year exemption by the EA to allow time for a solution to be developed,” added Mr Bateson. “Following an investigation by EA consultants it was decided that there is sufficient opportunity for eels to pass through the station owing to the gravity sluice which allows passage through a wide channel when tides allow.
“The issue for Hobhole is eel screening, where consultants felt that eels needed to be kept away from the pumps when they are operating. We do not believe this is an issue but are currently working with Hull University to establish what the real risk is to eels and the results will be known later this year.
“In the meantime, the consultants have just presented a solution costing £14.5 million for Hobhole and over £5 million for Lade Bank Pumping Station at Old Leake.
“With an annual rate income of around £2.4 million there is no way that the Witham Fourth District Internal Drainage Board can afford the £20 million cost of compliance, even if the preferred solution can be proven to be effective.”
The EA is tasked with ensuring the drainage boards are compliant.
A spokesman for the EA said: “In the last 30 years the European eel population has dramatically declined, putting it on the endangered species list. The Environment Agency has been working on a number of measures to increase the prospects for eels and boost their numbers, such as removing barriers and installing eel passes which have made more than 5,000km of river easier to access. As part of this work, we have identified sites where high priority action is needed to ensure the safe passage of eels and we are working with these companies to help them make these improvements.”
A spokesman for Defra said drainage boards can apply for funding from the European Maritime Fisheries Fund which may help with costs. They added a deadline of 2027 had been set for compliance.