CALLS have been made to postpone plans to lower the River Derwent with claims it amounts to 'environmental vandalism'.
The Environment Agency is investigating the possibility of removing the weir at Kirkham Abbey to help fish migrate to upstream spawning grounds.
As part of the investigation they will be carrying out a temporary lowering of the river in September to help assess all possible impacts of the work including water levels.
However, local councillors and those who live along the river bank say it will be death knell for many fresh water species and cause irreparable damage to the local environment, while others have raised concern about the flooding impact on Malton and Norton.
Speaking at last week's meeting of Norton Town Council, John Teale, who has lived at Kirkham Abbey for 30 years, said the river would drop by as much as nine feet.
"This is one of the most beautiful locations in Ryedale, admired and visited by people from far and wide," he added.
"What right do they have to destroy this unique environment which has been there since the 1700s - it will have a huge impact on the wildlife and will be the death knell for many fresh water species. This plan amounts to environmental vandalism."
Mervyn Stone, deputy chairman of Scrayingham Parish Council, said it as astounding that the Environment Agency could go ahead with these plans when it had failed to maintain the river for years.
"They are putting their finger in a wasps nest ," he added.
"The Environment Agency obviously live in different houses and are not putting their heads together. Why go ahead with this ridiculous idea which is going to effect a lot of people before they get their act together in other ways."
Councillor David Lloyd-Williams, a member of both Malton and Norton Town Councils, said he was appalled at the lack of consultation that had been carried out.
"I think the time is more than right for the 'experiment' proposed by the Environment Agency, to lower the sluice gate at Kirkham, is exposed properly as a cost cutting exercise in order to eventually remove both the sluice and the weir and allow the Derwent to flow as a spate river. The effect of this has been estimated by a river expert as lowering the river levels by between a metre and two metres.
"Such devastation would cause the banks to crumble and fall into the river, foundations of existing buildings and embankments to dry out and shrink, the wildlife currently living in abundance within the Area of Natural Beauty and Site of Special Scientific Interest being turned upside down, the river in some areas of visitor attraction being reduced to a mere pond, and the boating fraternity along the Upper Derwent losing their ability to enjoy the river, as they have done for many years."
However, floods campaigner Howard Keal, who lives in Norton, said they needed to hear from the Environment Agency about whether the changes it proposed would reduce flood risk in Malton and Norton.
"We have had a number of close calls when the defences were almost overwhelmed and it is important to have some straight answers from the agency on the impact of what is being proposed and whether it will help protect homes," he added.
"A lot more detail has to be given about exactly what is on the table."
Ben Hocking, project manager at the Environment Agency, said: “Weirs have historically been installed for a number of reasons, such as for industrial benefits, but many weirs have since been found to reduce the quality and range of the wildlife of the watercourse upstream.
“As part of the Environment Agency’s work to improve natural habitats, we are looking at how the River Derwent can be improved in the future. There are some obvious ecological benefits to removing the weir at Kirkham, but we want to investigate the wider potential impacts before we make a decision.
He added: “Landowners and organisations in Kirkham and Malton are helping us to monitor the river during the trial, but we want the wider community to know in advance that the water levels will reduce temporarily.”
Mr Hocking said previous police warnings to the community about the dangers of jumping into the River Derwent from Kirkham Bridge were also being repeated.
"Lower water levels in the river would make such activity more dangerous than it already is – so the Environment Agency will be installing signs on the bridge to make people aware of the trial," he added.
* A public drop-in event will be held at Cundalls, 15 Market Place, Malton, on Wednesday, September 3 between 4pm and 8pm when Environment Agency officers will be on hand to discuss the trial and answer any questions.