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Natural flood management – a vital step towards flood resilience 

The autumn/winter storm season has left a number of communities in the Trent and its tributaries inundated with flooding. For many, recent storms meant reliving the upset and disruption of previous flood events. Others have experienced flooding for the first time. Looking ahead, those affected, and those worrying about the storms to come, are asking questions about what can be done to prepare lives and livelihoods for a future that will see more extreme weather events at a greater frequency.

Effective flood defence must rely on a range of different intervention measures. From flood barriers, careful town planning, engineered solutions, property flood resilience, Sustainable Drainage Schemes, and community response plans; there are many necessary pathways to a climate-resilient future.

One important, government-supported, solution is natural flood management. The approach acts as a first line of defence to allow more time for communities to prepare for flooding. It can also lower the flood peak and reduce the potential impact of flood damage, whilst also providing other environmental benefits such as new habitat, water quality improvements, and soil health for productive agriculture. 

Liz Walker from the Southwell Flood Forum, whose community has benefitted from 43 interventions across 12 landholdings, tells us: 

“Natural flood management alongside other mitigation and individuals’ property flood resilience measures certainly helped the town during Storm Babet. We hope soon to have more engagement with landowners for extra NFM in the upper catchment to see if it’s feasible and affordable, with various funding opportunities that the government may provide.”

Natural flood management – thinking beyond single solutions and benefits

Beyond flood resilience, natural flood management supports nature recovery. It reinstates and enhances natural processes within rivers and the catchments that drain into them. A restored catchment, using natural flood management methodology, can help settle out excess nutrients, improving water quality, create valuable habitat, and, depending on location, provide nature-rich spaces for communities to enjoy. 

How natural flood management works

Natural flood management is a catchment-wide approach and applies the principle of little and often. It is most effective when many interventions can operate collectively. 

Using a range of methods, natural flood management reduces or slows the amount of water reaching communities – think wetlands, ponds, bunds, trees, and surfaces with good infiltration.

Depending on the area we are working in, natural flood management could:

■ Slow water in-channel to prevent water rushing through using natural materials

■ Temporarily store water using ponds, ditches, wetlands, and floodplains

■ Interrupt overland flow by creating buffers or bunds

■ Increase soil infiltration and reduce surface runoff

■ Encourage evaporation from vegetation and soil to make space for water

Natural flood management is collaborative

Natural flood management relies on collaboration. By working on solutions with landowners across the catchment, schemes start with an open conversation about the suitability of different interventions. 

While many landowners are encouraged by nature recovery and its potential to support local communities, natural flood management needs to carefully assess suitable interventions within a productive landscape. At Trent Rivers Trust, we are working collaboratively with landowners to deliver solutions that balance flood risk, nature recovery, and food production. We consider landowner knowledge and reservations and can support access to funding, where applicable.  

Looking to the future

Trent Rivers Trust has been involved in the launch of natural flood management schemes from the very beginning. We supported the Department of rural affairs (Defra) pilot in 2016 and have since completed projects in many different communities.

While natural flood management has come a long way since then, some barriers to delivery persist. Funding remains a key challenge. Natural flood management and its biodiversity benefits are often outcompeted by other, more profitable forms of land use. These ultimately result in a catchment less resilient to extremes such as flooding and drought.  The lack of support for landowners is felt by communities dependent on integrated and comprehensive flood resilience solutions.

To address the issue, we need to embed flood mitigation into land-use planning and broaden funding sources, to include private and community sources as well as government-based ones.

At Trent Rivers Trust, we are exploring such finance models locally, but are calling for a more integrated commitment to financing a nature-based approach to flood risk reduction from public and private bodies.

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