Natural flood management: The ultimate sustainable solution

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At Ecosulis, we believe that rewilding solutions can solve a wide range of complex environmental problems in a way that conventional environmental solutions can’t. The rewilding solution to flood management (natural flood management), through reedbed planting, wetland creation and other natural features is a case in point. The UK Government has a target in its 25-year environment plan (announced in 2018) to restore 75% of the one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition. This is ambitious when you consider that in 2020 only 16% could be judged to meet this standard.  Alongside this, flood risk in the UK is increasing exponentially, with more frequent and unpredictable floods likely in years to come. In a study published this month in the Journal of Hydrology, researchers at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University analysed historical flood and meteorological data from 158 areas across the UK. They suggest that historical approaches to flood defences are inadequate.

Rethinking traditional flood defences to support wetland creation

With higher rainfall recorded, flood risk is a serious concern along many waterways, with local government, communities and land-owners keen to find innovative and sustainable solutions. Conventional engineered flood defences cost millions of pounds, cause massive disruption and, in some instances, are not resilient to climate change as Chen, Papadikis and Jun highlight in their study. Whilst we can’t do away with such defences altogether, experience has proven they are often detrimental to downstream communities and local wildlife and habitats, as they simply divert and speed up water flows from one location to the next.

This is where natural flood management (NFM) solutions can help. NFM uses a range of features, creating reed beds and other planting to support wetland creation alongside dams and natural embankments, sympathetically integrated into the landscape to reduce flooding. NFM has proven effective in areas such as West Yorkshire, where natural defences were installed by 1,000 volunteers, to protect over 3,000 homes, following the tragic Boxing Day Floods in 2015. 

12 Reasons to choose natural flood management

NFM lets nature lead – river catchments are naturally dynamic. Water will find its own path, silts will accrue where they can and vegetation will quickly establish. An understanding of natural processes can determine what NFM features are most appropriate – whether its installing a leaky dam, withy bund and fascines (bundles of brushwood), or introducing sustainable grazing, or our favourite ecosystem engineer – the beaver – all have an important role to play in rewilding wetlands to support flood defences.

NFM works at scale  Simply put, the more NFM activities that occur over a larger area, the better it will be for flood mitigation and improvements to biodiversity. We only need to look to the Rhine catchment in the Netherlands to witness what a positive impact catchment scale NFM projects can have, relatively quickly.

NFM complements conservation Many of the UKs protected sites and priority habitats and species benefit from the presence of NFM features. Whether it’s providing spawning sites for fish, silts in which aquatic plants can grow, or even a wooden bridge for a fox to cross a river, NFM projects enhance local conservation efforts.

NFM is context-appropriate A wide range of NFM features can be installed to attenuate waters including ponds, scrapes, banks, diversions, bunds and dams. Taking inspiration from nature, such features can be sympathetic to the local landscape and often allow historic features to be restored.

NFM offers bundled-benefits Whether the key priority is to reduce flood events, minimise public spend, or increase biodiversity, NFM offers an all-round solution to our combined climate and ecological emergencies, as well as providing an important public asset that can be enjoyed into the future.

NFM delivers a human pay-off Mitigating flood risk through NFM not only makes a difference to those whose lives are affected by flooding. It also creates green spaces where people can connect with nature and improve their quality of life. NFM solutions have greatest value where people can see that their needs have been taken into account.

NFM is innately collaborative  NFM projects rely on inclusion of a wide range of stakeholders from the outset. Collaborators include landowners, developers, local authorities and others responsible for protecting people’s homes and getting communities involved in  delivering the work. The problems and solutions to them necessitate a joint effort underpinned by lateral thinking.   

NFM supports nature-based economies  At scale, NFM schemes have potential to create environments that attract visitors, which in turn allows local people to offer goods and services and create new jobs. A fantastic example of this can be seen at Gelderse Poort in the Rhine River Delta, which is now a destination for hundreds of thousands of people annually, with boosted tourism, recreation and infrastructure as a result of the WWF-supported scheme.

NFM uses organic material  NFM techniques allow for the use of natural materials such a tree trunks, brash from branches, stakes cut on site and twine made of hemp. Soils can be mounded, vegetation established and there’s no need for metal or concrete.

NFM expertise is growing  There is now a growing community of landowners, agencies and experts all sharing their experiences of what works well and where and why problems have arisen. One valuable resource is the website:  Catchment Based Approach – CaBa.

NFM supports nature education Whether it’s the creation of new habitats, improving biodiversity, improving water quality, reducing erosion, mitigating impacts of climate change, or simply providing a wilder place for people to enjoy, NFM projects have a lot to offer.

Last but not least, one of the reasons we are so passionate about rewilding at Ecosulis (and NFM as a practice) is that we know from experience this work provides hope and purpose for anyone involved in it, from volunteers to our core team. This is a key rewilding principle.

Natural flood management expertise

At Ecosulis, we have decades of experience in designing, implementing and managing natural flood management schemes, and have seen how quickly and dramatically nature-based solutions upstream can reduce risk downstream. Our NFM plan, created alongside the Environment Agency, Trent River Trust and local farmers along the river Soar is a great example. Our work included the creation of wetland features such as new pools and reedbeds, floodplain bunds (clay-based embankments) to slow the flow within the floodplain, and in-channel features such as leaky dams and woody barriers.

These green engineering options hold back water flow and spread it onto the floodplain when river levels are high. Now complete, these measures will reduce flood risk (the benefits on water attenuation are already evident), and create biodiversity-rich green spaces that will become more established and biodiverse over time, supporting wildlife and helping local communities connect with nature.

The work along the Soar demonstrates the bundled benefits of NFM. It’s exciting that a natural engineering solution to a specific problem aligns so well with core rewilding principles, delivering benefits for biodiversity and human engagement with nature.

My hope is that after reading this blog, you’ll be inspired to encourage and support the integration of rewilding into land-management practice in the future, promoting natural flood management to support the restoration of our rivers throughout the UK. Spread the word and look out for local projects to support.

To start your NFM project or learn more about the possibilities and nature recovery benefits that natural, rewilding projects achieve, get in touch.

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