Tackling flooding; whole catchment approaches

At times when we experience floods, such as those currently devastating people’s homes and businesses in parts of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, it is very common to see people attempting to distill the problem down to a single cause. In complex hydrological systems there is no sense in taking this simplistic approach; rather the whole catchment needs to be considered and we need to think about how we make entire catchments more resilient to extreme events. This is one reason for the ’i‘ in the NERC-funded Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP). We work on the understanding that what happens in one area of the catchment affects other parts of the catchment because it is a whole system.

Our work looks at how processes integrate across the entire catchment and while finding solutions to environmental problems we also seek ways to address multiple problems at once, thereby delivering value for money. It isn’t just physical elements of catchment management, there’s a human element too: we work closely with partners and stakeholders on all projects to build relationships and trust and to support organisations to work together in confidence to maximise beneficial outcomes.

Flood Forecasting, and Drought & Flood Risk Mitigation are two of our six workstreams that determine the work we fund. We draw upon the research of several universities in the region including the University of Leeds, University of Sheffield and the University of York to address problems that organisations across Yorkshire are seeking to tackle. This ranges from trying to improve the ability of local councils to respond to weather forecasts by improving the advice provided in a forecast, or implementing measures that slow the flow of water across the landscape so it takes longer to move into the rivers and doesn’t contribute to sudden peak flows.

Restoring functionality

Restoring the peatland in the upper reaches of a catchment means that rainfall there takes longer to move through and into rivers downstream. Our Peatland Restoration project has developed guidance for practitioners and managers to help their decision-making as to the best restoration techniques to return the system to its normal functionality of water storage and slowing downstream flow. An added benefit of this kind of restoration is that functioning peatland acts as a sink/store locking up carbon that might otherwise be driving climate change.

Images of Sphagnum in peatland

Natural Flood Management: modelling, mapping and monitoring

Several of our other projects are on the same theme as this: using natural processes to slow and store water moving through the landscape to avoid the mass flows and peaks that cause problems. There are many Natural Flood Management (NFM) pilot projects throughout Yorkshire funded by government. Our iCASP projects are supporting these by working with partner organisations to develop modelling, mapping and monitoring capability.

We use computer models to understand which parts of a catchment contribute greater quantities of water into a watercourse than other parts, and to understand the role that landscape features – both natural and human-made – may play in this process either slowing or storing water. Our modelling expertise is currently being used in our Calderdale NFM project to understand how three tributaries contribute to water flows further downstream.

Combining rainfall data and high resolution terrain data, combined with the knowledge gained from site visits means we can create ‘Opportunity Maps’ that allow an identification of what the current landscape management means for flood risk and what might be done in future.

Once developed, Opportunity Maps allow us to identify locations where NFM interventions such as tree planting, aerating soil, buffer strips or leaky dams may best be sited for maximum effect. In the case of our Don Catchment project, we work with the land managers to identify which interventions could be installed by volunteers, what interventions would be best and where our mapping allows us to identify the additional impacts these interventions may play. Many NFM interventions can serve multiple purposes; they may not only slow down the flow of water across the landscape, but they might also improve water quality or provide valuable habitat for wildlife, contributing to improved biodiversity and species richness in an area.

“We feel very privileged to have benefited from our involvement in iCASP, as it has given us access to expertise that has resulted in opportunity maps that are guiding our decision-making in relation to our Hidden Heritage Secret Stream (HHSS) project. These maps identify locations in the landscape where we can have the most impact, and they have also helped highlight the types and locations of NFM interventions that not only slow the flow of runoff, but also reduce diffuse pollution and increase ecological connectivity across the landscape. Our team is using the maps to identify sites for investigation on the ground, and they have been very useful when engaging with our partners and landowners.”

Ed Shaw, Director Don Catchment Rivers Trust

Monitoring the impact and effectiveness of NFM interventions is critical; both to being able to identify what impact is delivered, but also in being able to make the case for funding such measures and for their ongoing maintenance.  A key aim of another of our Natural Flood Management projects is to improve the monitoring capability of those using NFM so they are able to carry out rigorous monitoring to contribute to the evidence base for this kind of flood risk intervention.

In our Payment for Outcomes project we are working with the National Trust to build NFM measures into their payment for outcomes trial. Farmers on some of the Trust’s tenanted farms will receive payment for the environmental outcomes they achieve, and this work will eventually inform Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme and show how NFM can be integrated within this.

To maximise all the benefits of this work, we’ve developed a Natural Flood Management Community of Practice (CoP) to bring together people working on NFM to share skills, experience and best practice, build capacity and discuss challenges and opportunities.  The CoP meetings draw upon the expertise we are deploying in the NFM projects we work on and also brings together people from across the region – and increasingly from beyond it too – to understand how best to manage their areas of land in the most appropriate ways for our future climate.

Images from the Natural Flood Management Community of Practice meeting in June 2019

Improved forecasting

Slowing the flow of water through a catchment, and the measures put in place to do this are just one aspect of the measures we are working on. As demonstrated in the last week, at times rainfall is extreme and even if there are lots of interventions in place upstream, the sheer quantity of water is overwhelming, so we also work on improving flood forecasting. Our Enhanced Surface Water Flood Forecasts project worked with a range of partners to trial new forecasting software to assess whether it helped flood risk managers and emergency responders in the decision-making processes they go through in a flood event.

In response to Defra’s Surface Water Management Action Plan, the Environment Agency and Met Office are scoping a new capability for sharing with responders very short range and rapid update forecasting (“nowcasting”) for the type of rainfall that causes surface water flooding. The Enhanced Surface Water Flood Forecasts project final report, including feedback from the incident response workshop, has provided valuable information and user response insight for the discovery phase of this project and we expect that continued engagement with the iCASP team will continue to be beneficial for understanding user needs and exploring piloting opportunities.”

Graeme Boyce, Project Executive, Flood Forecasting Centre

Our Living With Water Catchment Telemetry Integration project, which the Living with Water Partnership are undertaking in Hull, will bring together remote monitoring data of water flows carried out by several organisations with decision-making software to create a tool that will help deliver operational preparedness for events such as those we have seen in the last week and identify optimal locations for future monitoring. Combining such data collected by these organisations has not been done at this scale before; this way of joint working will be extremely powerful in making higher levels of knowledge available to decision makers and first responders about actions to take and deployment of flood defences.

Building resilience

Our newest project – Bridging the knowledge gap to boost SME resilience – starting later this month will be working on ways to build the resilience of the SME sector. Here in Yorkshire, much of the private sector is made up of SMEs who can be very vulnerable to flooding and the knock–on effects to the regional economy of a flood event can be significant and far-reaching. The project will work with local authorities and the insurance sector to develop a robust methodology for assessing the direct and indirect costs of floods on the SME sector so they are able to tailor their flood assessments and responses appropriately. By providing detailed information on the effectiveness of resilience measures and risk reduction activities, flood risk can be properly priced and managed by SMEs and appropriate support can be given to SMEs to make them more resilient and able to reduce their risks. Local Authorities will be better able to carry out future flood assessments, lobby for additional funds to better prepare for future flooding and, in the event of a flood, prioritise their response in a consistent and timely manner.

iCASP is also working with City of York Council on the Yorkshire Future Flood Resilience Pathfinder project to understand the current level of Property Flood Resilience (PFR) measures in place across Yorkshire, and what can be improved.

This just a snapshot of some of the work we are undertaking to produce solutions to water challenges across Yorkshire, the UK and globally. Our work extends right across catchments, from high and remote peatlands where some of the water that floods peoples’ homes begins its journey, to the streets where we live and the monitoring and forecasting that takes place to try to improve the way we respond, the advice given and the deployment of measures to reduce flood risk.

“Over time, we are increasing the number and diversifying the types of flood management techniques that will reduce peak flows downstream providing new tools to support farmers, villages, towns and cities susceptible to floods.”

Joe Holden, Director, iCASP

The environment is a complex system and we need to work at many different levels to tackle integrated problems. With climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, it is clear that we need to continue to invest in ways to address resilience and to use a wide range of solutions across the landscape to tackle flooding, rather than think about each component of the system in isolation.

Payment for Outcomes: visiting farms to determine possible sites for Natural Flood Management

iCASP is working on a project to integrate Natural Flood Management (NFM) into the National Trust’s ‘Payment for Outcomes’ trial. The Trust are undertaking the trial on some of their tenanted farms working with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust. Their work will help to inform Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS). It seeks to pay for farmers for the environmental outcomes they achieve on land they farm.

The iCASP project is focused on identifying opportunities for NFM measures and discussing with farmers how NFM could fit into a payment scheme that would make business sense for them. These valuable insights will help inform future payment schemes which focus on payment for outcomes.

iCASP produced maps of each farm showing the  parcels of land tenanted from the National Trust. The land parcels were overlaid on to maps, produced from SCIMAP. These maps show areas of risk related to diffuse pollution (e.g., fine grained sediment) and the connectivity of overland flow of water to the main channel network – together, these maps show which areas of land could benefit from further management. This allows us to generate ‘opportunity maps’ that indicate where NFM interventions might best be sited; for example installation of a leaky dam in a particular location might work well to slow peak flows of water or buffer strips to help reduce sediment (soil) being washed away.

Maps of a land parcel showing the key diffuse pollution risk areas and overland water flows (left hand map shows areas of erosion risk with red areas showing higher risk than orange and yellow areas, the right hand map shows hydrological connectivity with the darkest blue showing the greatest areas of connectivity to the main channel network). These maps are produced for each National Trust land parcel and taken on to site to allow them to be annotated with notes based on what is observed on the ground and while talking the tenant farmers

Ground-truthing of the map outputs is crucial to understand the farm in more detail to ensure NFM opportunities are placed in the correct locations. For example, smaller flow pathways that connect sediment and water to the main channels, may not have been picked up during the modelling due to the resolution of data used. Speaking to the land owner is vital at this point to understand how the land is currently used and managed and where there are current issues (e.g., waterlogged soil). This is another layer of information that can be used to ground-truth the modelling output and also verify the locations of potential NFM interventions.

We have recently visited five farms taking part in the trial to do this ground-truthing. This has meant we’ve been able to annotate all the maps to verify the modelling output. This has allowed us to come up with a better understanding of which NFM interventions could be used and their locations on the farms.

A photo of the field shown in the maps above. This is looking towards where the highest levels of overland water flow were indicated by the mapping, however locating NFM measures below this was not felt to be worthwhile in this particular case because the ground below was very boggy and was already acting to slow the flow of water downhill by retaining it.

The next step in this process will be to meet with all the farmers and other organisations involved in the project to share the knowledge gained by the process and produce final maps of the suggested interventions. Meeting with the farmers will also provide valuable feedback on the opinions of NFM, which interventions the farmers would be willing to install on their land and how these efforts might be incorporated into a payment scheme that pays the farmer for the environmental benefits they produce by installing NFM. iCASP will feed the key points of these discussions to DEFRA to inform the development of ELMS as well as share this useful insight with other projects looking at payment for outcomes (e.g. the Horizon 2020 CONSOLE project iCASP is part of). The National Trust will use the insights evaluate how NFM could be incorporated into their Payment for Outcomes trial.

 

Working with large land owners

Last week iCASP facilitated a meeting with the National Trust and Water@Leeds to identify future opportunities for collaborative working.

The National Trust (NT) are one of the largest land owners in the UK, and around 40% of land in the UK drains into a watercourse which runs through a NT property. The Trust recognises it has a responsibility to restore environments to healthy, beautiful and well-functioning status as well as ensuring their ongoing management methods and practices maintain that status.  They’re not just seeking to help store carbon, reduce flooding and restore soil health, but do this whilst also ensuring the land they own remains beneficial to wildlife and people.

Staff from Water@Leeds and the National Trust meeting to discuss priorities, expertise and future ways of working (photo credit: Jenny Armstrong)

Collaborating with Water@Leeds will enable the Trust to feed into the latest research and development activities which in turn could increase the implementation of evidence-based management decisions across their properties. Collaborating with the Trust provides opportunities for researchers to trial innovative new activities in real world settings and access a wealth of information from those who live on and manage the land. iCASP can help to facilitate this collaboration by identifying the priorities of the National Trust and translating Water@Leeds research to help answer key questions to the challenges faced.

The meeting considered several ways of working together; from PhD studentships to research grants and fellowships. Possible collaborations were identified across a range of topics including water quality, habitat management and biodiversity enhancement, natural flood management and carbon management. These themes cut across a variety of catchments where both the Trust and University of Leeds researchers work.

The National Trust are already project partners on the iCASP Payment for Outcomes project that is seeking to include natural flood management (NFM) in the Trust’s Payment for Outcomes trial. In turn the Trust’s trial can help inform Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) and how a range of different measures to improve environmental outcomes can be included and paid for.  The iCASP project focuses on several of the Trust’s tenanted farms and aims to identify which NFM interventions are most suited to the farms and surrounding land, and pay farmers and land managers for the work they undertake to achieve these improvements.

Photos from visits to National Trust farms to identify sites for Natural Flood Management interventions as part of our Payment for Outcomes project (photo credit from L-R: Ben Rabb, Tom Willis, Poppy Leeder, Ben Rabb)

We hope to build on the partnership working already underway and facilitate more collaboration in the future to benefit the beautiful places owned and managed by the Trust for the benefit of us all.

 

Additional links that may be of interest:

National Trust Riverlands project

POSTnote on Natural Flood Management

Paying farmers for natural flood management

Photocredit: Andrew Walker, Yorkshire Water

A group of farmers are at the heart of an iCASP project which will be supporting the trial of a new national scheme for paying land managers to deliver benefits such as healthy soil or an increase in bees and other pollinators. The National Trust and Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority are running a ‘Payment for Outcomes’ trial with a group of  tenant farmers in the Yorkshire Dales which will help to test the feasibility of Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

Read morePaying farmers for natural flood management

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