More than just a Flood

- 1:44 pm - December 23rd, 2015

The two main environmental news stories that have been reported over the last two weeks are: the floods in Cumbria, where I live, and the agreements reached in Paris on cutting greenhouse gasses to address climate change. The two are clearly related both in their scientific understanding and in the partnership approach needed to address them.

Whilst we may now be finally making headway on greenhouse gas reduction at the strategic international level, at the local and regional level there still seems to be the desire to blame someone for ‘failed flood defences’. There is almost an avoidance to understand that at best, any flood defence structure is built on an agreed risk and based on existing real data.

It appears that this flooding event has re-kindled the flawed idea that flood defences should be built to protect us against every storm event and yet again we revert to agencies being pushed into revising calculations and secure funding for even bigger defences. Whilst this may generate much enthusiasm and support on doing something here and now, it provides at best, a contribution to what we at local level could do for ourselves.

There are many organisations and government agencies who agree that making space for water; accommodating those water surges associated with flood events, is a key area to be addressed if we are to mitigate against (not cure) the worst of these events and reduce the risk to people and property.

Floods also have a damaging effect on a whole series of other water based ecosystem services, so slowing the flow will have numerous environmental benefits. Of course these ideas are contrary to the historic policies of ‘land drainage’ and ‘training rivers’; highlighting the importance of watercourses being allowed to operate more ‘naturally’. 

In fact making space for water is in itself a generic term. Initially it related to adjusting river forms and structures that promoted the flooding of ‘selected’ tracts of land. However with the relatively recent concept of ‘ecosystem services’ tabled by Natural England and others, the whole idea of there being a value to the greater society for allowing targeted rural land to flood as opposed to just focussing on urban areas is at least now up for discussion and perhaps adoption. There is also now widespread understanding about how land behaves be it flat lowland or uplands with steep gradients and potentially fast run-off.  The role of woodlands, sometimes historically the main vegetative cover, the value of upland peat bogs and the ability to manage soils to be more absorptive of storm water are very important aspects in this debate. Sadly they do not yet attract the same passion as the flood defence structure argument.  It is unlikely that the public in general are aware that indirectly, they are already paying for land management which does not presently optimise protection of property.

However, one aspect of making space for water is gaining increasing interest and application, is the use of SUDS and all the structures and features this now includes. SUDS are now an integral part of planning policy and flood risk legislation across the UK.  An important part of the Flood and Water Management Act and the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act is the need for organisations to work collaboratively in delivering integrated approaches to managing surface water and urban drainage. This partnership approach can be applied to different scales of problems from site specific issues to the creation of plans and strategies, involving multiple organisations and dealing with large scale issues.

That then really leaves the management of those large tracts of land across the UK where soil management and conservation needs to be elevated in profile and action taken where appropriate.

In the most recent storms we have seen massive gullies created through erosion in the uplands and landslides with important soils lost for ever.  Worse still, the materials erodes can be later deposited in locations which exacerbate property flooding as well as damaging other environmental features. The same process applies in lowland areas; perhaps less dramatically, but equally important.

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Photograph courtesy of Courtesy of John Malley, National Trust

In England, Natural England presently has a Catchment Sensitive Farming Scheme which includes a whole-farm approach being implemented in selected, priority areas. The value of this scheme, (finite?) may well be more important than it seems. Expansion to make the principles more widespread and applicable to all areas of vulnerable soils not just one sensitive to phosphorus and nitrate  could be of significant value, but society as a whole needs to realise that soil conservation and making space for water in agricultural regions should not be to the cost of the farmer. This is a function to reduce flood frequency, duration and intensity and the protection of the whole water ecosystem which need to be paid for by us all.

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The issue is not just that of mitigation against flood impacts. It is to recognise that all aspects of environmental protection, including species (us) and habitats (homes), need to be addressed in a holistic way. Bringing together disciplines and expertise in all the relevant fields will help those with decision making responsibilities from the individual farmer or house owner to the regional policy makers to contribute to delivering those actions possible at local level whilst governments can focus on their promises to reduce greenhouse gases.

The Enviro Experience team are well placed to provide advice and awareness to individuals, businesses and agencies on some of the emerging principles on “landscape- scale management”,


John Pinder

December 2015