There are not many people who can claim to have spent more than 40 years keeping our rivers and coasts safe from flooding, but Jackie Banks is one of them.
Banks, who retired from the Environment Agency in June after 41 years, has been honoured twice in the last year for her work in the field.
In the Queen’s New Years honours, she was awarded the MBE for her services to communities and flood risk management, and last month she was awarded the annual Jack Lewin Prize by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).
The prize is awarded to a person or a group, who has made a significant contribution to the development of rivers and coastal risk management, and was named after a former CIWEM member, Jack Lewin, who Banks worked with many years ago and describes as ‘very talented and knowledgeable engineer’.
‘I remember when we used to go on site visits, Jack would crawl all over the structures to see how they work. He was, at the time, quite elderly, but he still had that energy and that enthusiasm.
‘It’s a real honour to be nominated by colleagues, and by the institution as well,’ she tells Environment Journal. ‘It’s that recognition by your fellows that you have done a good job and made a difference.’
A former chair of CIWEM’s rivers and coastal group, Jed Ramsay, said her contribution to flood risk management has been ‘inestimable over the years’.
Transformation through technology
Banks herself is also a former chair of the same group and has helped shape policies at the highest level, but her career had very humble beginnings when she joined the-then Severn Trent River Authority as a trainee technician back in 1975.
‘When I started out we had one computer which was shared between all the offices,’ she recalls. ‘It was 30 miles away from my office and you had to book time on it.
‘For flood warnings, we used to have to ring up all the gauging stations, and listen to a series of tones to see what the level was. We then did our own plots of the river rising, using to peak-to-peak graphs to forecast what was going to happen down stream. We would then issue warnings to the police, who would go around, knocking on doors.
‘Now we have computer models to help us predict what will happen. We have the technology to contact people in whatever way they wish. You can give people the service they want. Technology has increased immensely, but along with it, public expectations have increased as well. They expect as professionals to advice them with lots of details.
‘In the early part of my career, I spent most of my working life out in the country inspecting rivers, deciding where work was needed and advising people where they should and should not build,’ she recalls. ‘It just grew from there.’
We need to think about how long hot summers and torrential downpours will affect our assets and structures
As the Severn Trent River Authority became part of the National Rivers Authority and then the Environment Agency, Banks progressed up the ranks, and eventually leading on setting civil engineering standards across the Environment Agency.
She was also on CIWEM’s rivers and coastal group for 10 years, and chaired the group in 2007 and 2008.
‘When I started out in CIWEM, it was very unusual to see a woman engineer,’ she added. ‘I believe we need to encourage more young people and people from diverse backgrounds to come into the institution.’
And through CIWEM she has also mentored many of the institution’s members.’
‘Some of my proudest moments have been seeing some of the people I have mentored succeeding,’ she adds. ‘That’s a very powerful thing.’
Shaping our approach to flood risk
She has also helped shape policies around flood risk and coastal management, and remembers pushing for factors like social deprivation to be used as part of the formula, which determines whether an area gets priority for new flood schemes.
Looking forward, she highlights climate change as one of the biggest issues facing flood and coastal risk management.
‘Our government fully accepts it, but there are other governments who may not,’ she says. ‘It’s a global issue. Although we can do what we can locally, all of the countries in the world need to pull together to reduce climate change.
‘We have a fairly good grasp on what it means in terms of river flows and sea level rises, but we need to think about how long hot summers and torrential downpours will affect our assets and structures.
‘Obviously, Brexit is on everybody’s lips,’ she adds. ‘I think that makes international collaboration and sharing of lessons more and more important.
‘And population growth combined with climate change will increase the pressures on the resources we have. We are losing some species because some are evolving quicker than others.’
Photo credit: CIWEM