October 9, 2008
Landscape Changes Led to Recent Floods
By Tony Henderson
RECENT flooding has been part of the price for the way the landscape has been changed in the past, a North river scientist has said.
"We are paying the price for not thinking about how our management of the land impacts negatively on the water environment," said Professor Stuart Lane, executive director of the Institute of Hazard and Risk at Durham University.
Prof Lane said past measures, such as digging drainage grips in upland moors, had caused major problems. Rainwater reached rivers more quickly, adding to flood risk, and carried sediment from eroding upland areas. Sediment built up and raised the level of river beds, again increasing the flood threat.
With drying upland peat areas, water was not released slowly in times of drought.
"Digging upland grips was part of the wartime Dig for Victory mentality to make the land more productive and improve the uplands for grazing," he said.
This was added to by the EU Common Agricultural Policy which had encouraged high stocking levels of livestock.
"But drying areas are more prone to erosion and creates a bare and barren landscape," he said. Trees should also be re-planted in upper catchment areas to slow the movement of water and sediment.
The removal of hedgerows on arable land lower down rivers, and drainage of what had been water-holding floodplain fields, also quickened the rush of rainwater and sediment to rivers.
Another factor was the planting of crops like winter wheat, which meant that land was bare in the autumn, allowing faster water run- off.
"These land management changes have made the landscape work more quickly. It has all speeded up," said Prof Lane.
"These changes have got to be reversed but the problem is that we are talking about land which is owned by people and the issue is how we persuade people to reverse them."
He said that one avenue may be financial incentives under agri- environment schemes.
There was also the issue of climate change.
Prof Lane said: "These are uncertain times. What we do know is that our climate is changing. Our hills and rivers can do more to filter and absorb the impacts of that change.
"If we are to cope with future climate impacts we have to act now by using our hills and rivers to make us more climate proof."
We have to act now by using our hills and rivers to make us more climate proof
THE Making Space for Water programme is one of the Environment Agency's top policies.
Changes of land use, such as building houses, putting down concrete or digging drainage ditches, can have an effect on flood risk.
The agency is investigating land management practices and their implications for flood risk.
Newcastle University and the agency are monitoring the results of new land management techniques in the catchment upstream of Belford in Northumberland.
More than 30 properties and a caravan park in the town are at risk of flooding from Belford Burn, but the layout of Belford means building traditional flood walls and embankments is too expensive.
The Belford pilot involves creating many small-scale ponds and pockets of wetland to hold back water, instead of building larger storage reservoirs and altering watercourses. If successful, the techniques developed at Belford could be used to reduce the risk of flooding across England and Wales.
The Belford pilot also includes individual flood protection devices being fitted to some properties and the introduction of a flood warning service for residents and businesses. The pounds 610,000 package has been funded by the Northumbria regional flood defence committee's Local Levy, which is raised by local authorities in the North East.
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