Tuesday 29th January, 2019

Last November we published an e-news describing our work to protect rivers against the damaging effects of climate change. One of the aspects of this work is known as "natural flood management" or "NFM". Essentially, this involves increasing the ability of land to soak up and store water so that it runs more slowly into our rivers.

Expensive concrete and steel flood defences can only do so much and often just move the problem elsewhere. There appears to be more efficient, cost-effective ways to manage floods that also help our river environments2.7 million homes are at risk of flooding in the UK. The importance of NFM as an effective tool in reducing this threat is becoming more widely recognised. But it has great benefits for rivers and their environments too.

NFM reduces the ferocity and frequency of extreme high river levels. Just as importantly, it helps to sustain flows during extreme dry periods such as those endured in July and August last year. By reducing the amount of rainfall flowing directly into rivers, which often comes with soil particles and chemicals, NFM will also be important in reducing the agricultural pollution affecting many of our rivers.

According to the Met Office, 9 out of 17 highest months or seasons for rainfall since records began have occurred since 2000. In 2015, £2.6 billion of Government funds were committed to flood defence schemes over six years and in November 2016, £15m was also committed to NFM to help protect homes and property.

Our Catchment Advisors are out assessing soil health and its capacity to soak up rainfall. They then make recommendations to help infiltration rates that benefit farm businesses, reduce flood risk and improve river ecologyThe Foundation's Catchment Advisors are now delivering four projects to improve the water holding capacity of our landscape. The majority of this work is on tributaries that flood properties in rural communities - the Dulas Brook upstream of Ewyas Harold and the Pentaloe Brook above Mordiford, for example. In these and other areas our Catchment Advisers are working with landowners to identify opportunities that reduce runoff by increasing the water holding capacity in their soils or on their farm.

Healthy soil can hold huge volumes of water. However, this storage capacity can easily be compromised. Overgrazing and cultivating at the wrong time reduce both the infiltration rate and water holding capacity of soil. We are finding that much of the countryside's ability to hold water has been reduced by agricultural practices over the past few decades, just at a time when society needs it most.

Our advisers are working with farmers to assess infiltration rates, organic matter levels, structure and also worm numbers, which are good indicator of soil health and its ability to absorb rainfall. They then work with the landowner to agree what actions are a priority for their farm. These can benefit crop yield and livestock, so improve the farm business as well as delivering benefits to the rivers and a reduction in flood risk.

By enabling the land to soak up more water to be released slowly throughout the year, NFM also lessens the impact of drought on riversNFM aligns perfectly with the ambitions of our future agricultural policies. Initially introduced in the 2018 Agriculture Bill, these set out how farmers and land managers will in future be paid for "public goods" which include water quality, improved soil health and measures to reduce flooding. This shift in Government policy should, therefore, be good news for the rivers.

While it remains a relatively new approach, the Foundation is leading the way on how best to apply NFM. We have already been working with land owners within our catchments for several years to achieve outcomes that help both the farm business, reduce flood risk and improve the ecology of nearby rivers and streams.

We will report more on our findings and results of this work over the coming months, both from the point of view of the reduction in flood risk and improvements to the ecological health of the Wye and Usk catchments.

Over 2.7 million UK homes are currently at risk of flooding and this number is likely to rise as our climate becomes more extreme. There is only so much concrete defences will do. We believe the effective deployment of NFM is a more effective way of defending these homes from the misery flooding causes.

If you own a property in a flood zone or want to see a reduction in the environmental damage caused by a climate that is becoming more extreme, please consider supporting the Foundation and our NFM work here.