Living with change - managing water and flooding

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Since December 2013 many parts of the UK have taken a battering from high tides and constant rainfall, and January 2014 was the wettest on record. Here, we look how climate change has impacted one of our places, and what we're doing to combat these effects.

We have to come to terms with the challenges of living in the age of extreme weather. Ten years ago floods dramatically hit the picturesque village of Boscastle in north Cornwall, and since then we've seen more significant floods that have affected many communities and the natural world.

But how do we live with the challenge of living with extreme weather? When it comes to reducing the risk of flooding we have to think holistically. We need to look at how we slow the water down from source to sea. If we get the pieces of the jigsaw right by intervening and managing water then we can make a difference.

Working together to protect places

For the last five years we've been managing a major project, with funding and support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency, on the north coast of Somerset. The quintessential English villages of Bossington and Allerford, with pretty thatched cottages, were vulnerable to flash flooding as the water cascaded down from the uplands of Exmoor into Porlock Bay. This ambitious and innovative project wanted to look at how changes in land use could help to slow down the speed and volume of water. It’s a bit like creating the escape routes for cars that you see when driving down a steep hill.

The last 100 days has been a real test for Bossington and Allerford. The St Jude storm that hit Britain in October and the persistent and intense rain since early December put the scheme through its first big test. Cottages that would normally have flooded have remained dry and the flow of the streams has been manageable. So what has changed?

What have we done?

Interventions throughout the whole catchment of the rivers Aller and Horner (of which we care for 90 per cent) has been the focus of the project. This is all about using natural processes to slow the water down.

On the windswept hills of Exmoor work to reduce the run-off from moorland by blocking ditches, creating catch pools and diverting surface water from paths and tracks has help to slow the flow. The planting of wet woodland en route as the rivers travel towards their destination helps slow the progress of water as trees are great at absorbing water. A return of water meadows, where fields are allowed to flood in the winter, has created much needed space for water and seen wildfowl arriving to take advantage of this new habitat. And the construction of five large earth bunds has provided a place to hold the water temporarily during intense rainfall events and release it slowly into the rivers as they flowed towards the sea.

Early results are promising

Data from recent events is still being analysed by the hydrologists but the initial results are encouraging. This project is beginning to work, taking the people that live and work, the farmers and villagers, on a journey to see how we could work with the natural environment to reduce the risk of flooding and slow the water down.

Lessons will be learned from this project that can be transferred to other catchments – such as the need to understand the complete catchment from source to sea and to recognise that changes to the way we manage our land can benefit flood risk, water quality, soil management, wildlife and the local community.