Getting a proper grip on flooding problems

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

There is a link between the Trinity College protest (Cambridge college lawn dug up by XR protesters, 18 February) and the flooding on which you also report. The Trinity protest was aimed at the plan to dig up farmland in Kirton, Suffolk, to build a mammoth lorry park, which would ruin three villages. This particular proposal has now been rejected.

You also report on the need for better natural drains to protect against floods (Better natural drains needed as storms get more intense, warn scientists, 18 February). However, the main natural drain in Suffolk is precisely the farmland and marshland that Trinity is infamous for building on (the plan for a lorry park has now been replaced with plans for a de facto new town). Digging up green belt land and farmland is a flood risk. The water that used to be stored in the ground has to go somewhere. Suffolk was spared this time round, but last year had floods in areas adjacent to new-builds that had never flooded before. Other counties may not have been so lucky – there was building uphill just outside Tenbury Wells.

Flooding isn’t only about climate change. Concreting the countryside in the present reckless manner increases flood risks, and the consequences of those risks are seldom borne by the people doing the building, or by Trinity College.
Dr Jon Mulberg
Felixstowe, Suffolk

• The environment secretary, George Eustice, insists the government has a “firm grip” on the issue of flooding (PM accused of hindering recovery from floods, 19 February). Let’s not confuse a “firm grip” with a proper grip. It is entirely understandable that devastated local communities want local flood defences. But if the events of the last fortnight are to become “the new normal”, we need leadership at the highest level to deliver a fully thought-through, integrated response to flooding at the large river catchment scale. The sticking-plaster solution of building more, and ever higher, flood defences (with the intergenerational commitment that this implies) runs the risk of efficiently channeling flood flows to weak points downstream and disconnecting rivers from their floodplains. It may be shocking to see vast expanses of muddy water from the air, but this is what rivers do – and must be allowed to do.
Prof Tom Spencer
Department of geography, University of Cambridge

• As scientists who have been studying the impact of burning on ecosystems in the British uplands, we would like to raise several issues in George Monbiot’s article (One way to cut flooding is to stop burning the moorland, 12 February).

“The burning of peatlands, research suggests, is likely to exacerbate floods downstream,” he writes. This research is a single paper that forms part of the EMBER project – research that has been found to be flawed and unreliable. The study was not a randomised controlled trial – burnt and unburnt rivers were both located within different areas of moorland sites that were studied in the project. Consequently, we cannot be sure if the results presented are linked to burning or rather due to the environmental differences between the various sites. Furthermore, the study artificially increased the treatment-level sample size of streamflow measurements by 2,400%. This is known as pseudoreplication – a process that greatly increases the chance of finding a statistically significant effect and severely limits the generalisation of findings.

Finally, Mr Monbiot cites a paper investigating the impact that the restoration of bare peat has on the downstream flood control potential of blanket bog. However, this was conducted on a severely degraded area of bare peat and is, therefore, not a valid comparison to grouse moors. Thus, apart from the findings of a single flawed report, there is currently no clear link between burning on blanket bog and flooding downstream. More robust research is needed to guide land management and policy with respect to the effects of rotational burning on our uplands.
Dr Mark Ashby
Researcher, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University
Dr Andreas Heinemeyer
Senior research fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York

• George Monbiot berates land managers and government over recent floods, blaming them on what he sees as poor practice. The reality is that thousands of hectares of peatland have been restored on moorland across the UK, with many more such projects planned and all aiding the natural flood management he advocates. Moor owners and managers are evolving their practices so that they can play a full part in climate regulation, natural flood management and biodiversity. The whole of society is adjusting to the changes needed to deal with the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, and results will not be seen overnight. However, rather than criticise, the Heather Trust takes a different approach. We work across sectors and interests to support the development of moorland management practices to ensure they deliver for these new and important agendas. Building consensus and common purpose does not grab headlines, but it does lead to lasting change.
Anne Gray
Director, The Heather Trust

• I was very disappointed at the opinion expressed by George Monbiot in describing the vital role and work of our internal drainage boards (IDBs), who manage water when it reaches the lowest parts of our catchments.

IDBs very much support better upper-catchment management and natural flood management measures to reduce run-off to lower parts of the catchment which they help manage. That management focuses on the correct balance of the needs of the environment, local economy and people, with added emphasis on reducing flood risk and carefully providing water to agricultural areas in times of its scarcity.

Mr Monbiot claims that IDBs don’t appear to be answerable to any government department. IDBs are defined as a risk management authority under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, and operate to governance rules set out in the Land Drainage Act (1991). Effectively acting as small local authorities, they are accountable bodies which undertake their flood risk management functions in line with England’s national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy, and are scrutinised by local authority committees, as well as reporting annually to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Yes, the predecessors of IDBs were originally formed by groups of landowners interested in managing water for their interests and benefit as far back as the 13th century, but today IDBs are highly efficient and democratic, operating for the wider public benefit of an area set out in legislation. Indeed, as a result of the work they carry out and their environmental stewardship of our water corridors, people are demanding that IDBs be allowed to increase their area of activities where other authorities are unable to justify looking after our rivers. Lower down the catchment, where there is the complex interface between people and economic activity, infrastructure, etc, our rivers and waterways need careful management using a variety of tools; IDBs are very well placed, skilled and equipped to do that.
Innes Thomson
Chief executive, Association of Drainage Authorities

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