Britain is once again under deluge. Prolonged bouts of heavy rain over the past couple of months mean the ground is waterlogged and low-lying land flooded. Across much of the country, more water is reaches the floodplain more quickly because of land drainage in the catchment to enable more intensive farming. This has effectively removed the capacity of semi-natural vegetation (much of which has been removed or significantly reduced), such as associated with deep-rooted broad leaved herbs in pastures, wetlands, hedgerows and trees, to hold water back. Along with these land use changes, modern farming continues to cause vast quantities of soil erosion from fields and into watercourses. Even now, during heavy rain, slurry from dairy farms is also washing off fields – and this is another source of nutrient-rich silt entering rivers. This situation means many West Country rivers are now in a dire state and are failing to meet quality objectives for nitrogen, phosphate and fish. Watercourse maintenance is a vital tool in the box for reducing flood risk but it is overly simplistic, as many have suggested, to claim that all the problems being experienced now in the Somerset Levels and other flood-prone areas are due to a lack of river dredging. Moreover, in the past, over-deepening and over-widening rivers to facilitate drainage off low grade farmland and thus intensify farming practices have exacerbated flooding downstream. Some blame therefore lies with the former Internal Drainage Boards, the farming industry, National Rivers Authority (and predecessors) for colluding to create this situation that cost taxpayers dear, for the sole purpose of enabling landowners to reap agricultural subsidies for creating arable land, reseeding pastures and destroying flower rich meadows and other semi-natural vegetation – often in or adjacent to floodplains. The Somerset Levels is an area where this happened big time and tensions here in the 1980s and 90s led to farmers burning the effigy of a local Nature Conservancy Council official and then to the introduction of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme. But this was the past and everyone needs to look at the now. Today, politicians, planners, the farming industry and all those involved in flood-risk planning, need to take a breath and work together to develop holistic, landscape-based measures that will overall improve the resilience of areas prone to flooding and treat a major part of the problem - runoff and silt from farmland at source. Such plans must also sit within a longer term adaptation strategy that will enable communities to adapt to climate change – including higher winter rainfall and sea level rise.
The Wildlife Trusts (www.wildlifetrusts.org/floods) and Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) issued press statements in January, calling for the authorities and agencies responsible for managing flood and coastal erosion risks to prioritise natural and sustainable solutions in rural and urban areas. A spokesman from the Environment Agency said that there needed to be a pond in every field in areas where flood prevention is needed. Yours truly piled into the debate via Farmers Guardian’s 10 January leader article (see http://tinyurl.com/pwkopc2) while George Monbiot’s treatise (“Drowning in money, Guardian, 13 January) had received over 800 comments within a few days of it being published.
Progress on implementing natural solutions has been painfully slow, despite “upstream” measures having been a key recommendation of the Pitt Review of flooding, published in 2007. There have been a few pilot projects, but funding and difficulties of landowner/farmer engagement continue to be major stumbling blocks, while further agricultural intensification in recent years in some areas has led to more runoff and silt entering rivers. Mark Fisher, commenting on George M’s feature, lamented experience from the Ripon Multi-objective Project, saying that, “Despite ... positive findings ... the landowners proved unwilling to submit an application for planting floodplain woodland at any of the identified sites and a decision was taken to close the project (after 15 months).” He said that a primary reason for their recalcitrance was “the lack of sufficient payments/incentive to compensate for the perceived reduction in capital value of the land and loss of agricultural income, as well as for the increased risks associated with land use change”. Monbiot rightly turns the table away on the whingers who say that too little is spent on flood defences, highlighting the excessive spending on policies (especially the CAP) that make flooding worse. It all comes back to money. There is a lot of it around, but most of it (88%) will be used to support farmers' incomes, which will in turn keep agricultural land prices high. Delivering the necessary land use changes to deliver 'ecosystem services' will be unable to compete on price.