Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Hold back the floods

Waterlogged maize field near Frome, January 2014.The area in the foreground is also contaminated by leachate originating from a manure pile (not slurry as previously stated),  so it isn't just water and soil washing off the land into watercourses. Two springs rise in this field which is located on a heavy clay soil liable to waterlogging. Maize-growing is not an appropriate way to farm this land in an environmentally sustainable way.


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 Somerset Levels is low-lying, most of it only just above sea level (20% is below mean high tide), necessitating pump drainage at times of high rain and high tides. The rivers also outfall into the Bristol Channel, which has the second greatest tidal range in the world. No amount of dredging will move water off from the area when it is underwater and when tides are high. Owen Paterson, having visited the Levels yesterday, has come in for a lot of flack from locals who are baying for the blood of the Environment Agency (apparently it is all the EA's fault the water hasn't disappeared) and want the rivers dredged. Paterson is correct in seeking to get organisations together to come up with a holistic plan (albeit on an unrealistic time scale). Work to alleviate flooding in all areas must get away from the old dredge, drain and pump approach and look to a much rounded set of long term measures. It is, however, a tragedy that the shambolic Common Agricultural Policy will continue to give money to farmers with hardly any strings attached. That is the money that could have been used to achieve the necessary land use change.


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.



7 comments:

  1. Good points, well made. However, I am surprised to hear about slurry spreading during January. Surely this is prohibited, as there is no plant growth taking place, so no uptake and the nutrients can only end up in the rivers?

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  2. You are right it shouldn't be happening, but the dairy farms have got a lot of slurry in their tanks to get rid of so it seems cross compliance requirements are going out of the window and there is a lack of enforcement. I saw slurry just applied to land at Shepton Mallet only two days ago. Not only are the plants not able to use the nutrients, there are major losses of ammonia to the atmosphere, which is another massive environmental problem.

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  3. Peter, Just to say that I made an error of judgement about the situation pictured in the photo at the top of this post. It wasn't slurry, but leachate from an out of sight manure heap. However, slurry spreading has still been happening elsewhere (as pointed out in my previous response to your comment.

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  4. Thanks Sue. The whole issue of the long-term impact of a prolonged flood has had very little discussion. Apart from issues around contamination from sewage and slurry and nutrient loading increase, what about soil structure? I assume the soil ecology will profoundly change.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Hi Sue - 20% of Somerset if below mean high tide, but nowhere inland is below sea level (mean sea level). Compare this with the Fens and Holland, which are considerably lower than Somerset. Because we have have such a large tidal range, (including low tides), there is nowhere in Somerset that is entirely dependant on pumping, there will, at least, be times of the year when gravity drainage is possible.

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  7. Thanks Phil, sorry it took me a while to correct that error.

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