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You are here: Science & Environment - Flooding - Our flooding Q&A

Our flooding Q&A

Our points of principle

  • Water level management: Water and watercourses need to be managed for the wider benefit of society for food, farming, homes, business, infrastructure and the environment.
  • No ‘one size fits all approach’: To manage water and flooding a variety of solutions need to be applied based on circumstances locally and within the catchment.
  • Whole catchment management: While measures may need to be applied locally, what is needed is a holistic picture of the catchment. Managing flood risk purely for urban areas to the cost of rural communities is not a sustainable option. Neither is it sensible to only talk about holding back water in the uplands, building new defences or getting water away as quickly as possible in the lowlands. What is needed is a balanced approach.
  • Farming is a business: It is essential that government recognises the economic importance of agricultural land if we are to achieve food security. Farmland should not simply be considered the lowest priority in flood management.

We've put together a Q&A to answer some of the questions you've asked about flooding, farming, the current situation and future policies.

Water level generic, abstraction, flood._275_208The NFU believes that our approach to river flooding must be balanced, looking at river systems as a whole; maintaining capacity downstream, including dredging, de-silting, bank repairs and vegetation management whilst also slowing the flow and improving infiltration, where needed, further upstream.

Following the 2012 floods, we have three core policy objectives to seek a reduction in rural flooding:

  1. Funding for flood risk management
    Seek an increase in the amount of government investment and activity on the ground by the Environment Agency towards the maintenance of existing flood defences and in particular watercourses. Rebalance the amount invested on capital projects versus that spent in revenue funding on maintenance activities.
  2. Watercourse maintenance
    Seek to improve regulation and guidance to facilitate farmers to undertake watercourse maintenance where they are able, while protecting the environment.
  3. Valuing agricultural land
    Seek a fairer assessment of agricultural land within flood risk management that reflecting its long-term value to society.

Click on the questions below for our key messages.

What is the situation on the Somerset Levels?

Levels flooding_275_205The Levels and Moors have filled with flood water following severe wet weather seen during December 2013 and January 2014.

Around 11,500 ha of land has been under 65 million cubic metres of water.


What is the problem?

The capacity and conveyance of the Main Rivers across the Levels and Moors (namely the Rivers Parrett and Tone) are heavily impeded with silt.

In a number of places this means the channel has only around 60% of its intended design capacity from when the rivers were engineered in the 1960s. Routine maintenance dredging of both rivers ceased in the late 1990s.

Hasn't this happened before?

Flooding on the Levels and Moors happened throughout much of 2012. The duration of the flooding then was greater, but the area covered was less (~9,500ha).

What action is urgently needed?

Dredging needs to be conducted on these main rivers to help contain normal river flows within bank and help evacuate water from future flood events.

What will dredging achieve?

Dredging on its own is unlikely to completely prevent flooding on the Levels and Moors from the events of January 2014 or those seen in 2012.

However, dredging will help reduce the extent (area) flooded and the duration that flood waters remain on the land (days instead of weeks).

Furthermore, it would mean less frequent flooding and quicker and more efficient recovery of the Levels and Moors.

What's the EA's national flood maintenance budget?

Cash_275_220While funding remains strong under the current government for capital projects that are largely focused on building new defences, the Environment Agency’s revenue budget for flood risk management has declined by £49 million from £275 million in 2010-11 to 226 million in 2014-15.

Furthermore, the cuts to spending on maintenance are likely to have been even sharper as other activities such as flood warnings and incident response have been prioritised. However, there is a lack of transparency around the exact figures spent on maintenance by the Environment Agency.

Is a lack of maintenance to blame for the floods?

Yes, in part. Recent weather events have seen greater than average rainfall and some severe storms, meaning some flooding would be inevitable.

Flooded river_275_183However, maintenance is a long term issue, keeping assets and watercourses in condition means they will be better able to cope in the future. The impacts are cumulative, the longer an asset or system goes without maintenance the greater the risk it may not perform. Not all rivers need active intervention such as de-silting or vegetation management but the current balance of works by the Environment Agency especially in lowland areas seems insufficient.

The NFU has also produced a briefing for members on the powers and duties of the Environment Agency to undertake maintenance works on Main Rivers and the rights of landowners and occupiers.

What are the pros and cons of dredging?

Dredging is an effective tool in the right circumstances to enhance the conveyance and capacity of lowland rivers, moving water from where it is accumulating to pumps or out to sea.

However, where flows are naturally moderated, dredging is not generally effective in managing flood risk except at pinch points such as weirs, overflow channels and culverts.

Careful dredging and bank maintenance can increase the biodiversity and nature conservation for man-made drainage channels and modified rivers if appropriate modern methods are used. The Association of Drainage Authorities have produced a Myth Buster on Dredging.

What are farmers doing on the ground?

What are farmers doing on the ground to prevent flooding on their land? And thus reduce damage to the landscape and wildlife?

Farmers can do a lot already to reduce the risk of flooding on their land, maintaining field drains and ditches surrounding fields, avoiding blockages in these and looking at land management techniques where appropriate that encourage water infiltrating into the soil rather than running across the surface.

Agri-environment schemes and guidance schemes such as Catchment Sensitive Farming offer funding support for farmers to implement measures that not only help reduce flooding or erosion in field and downstream but also reduce the amount of nutrients entering watercourses making them better environments for fish and other wildlife.

On our main rivers, farmers need the consent of the Environment Agency to undertake works currently. This can be bureaucratic, so seven River Maintenance Pilots are investigating ways of reducing the regulatory burden to ensure the job can get done more efficiently whilst ensuring farmers undertake works in an environmentally sensitive manner.

What are the implications for agriculture?

Whilst the wet weather through January has broken records, it has come at a less critical time in the farming calendar.

Flooded field with hay balesFor example, livestock will typically be in winter housing or out on the hill and winter crops will have been drilled. Beyond the flooded areas, large areas of farmland are saturated due to the extent of the rainfall.

For the industry as a whole, the future impacts on production will largely depend on how quickly land drains and dries out. That will determine how quickly any established crops recover and whether ground conditions delay the planting of spring crops and turnout of livestock or slow plant growth in the Spring.

The last couple of years have proven that agriculture as a whole has been relatively resilient to climatic extremes. Although similar resilience can be anticipated from the industry in the face of this wet weather, the economic impacts on those farms who have battled the flood waters will be pronounced.  

What are the implications for farm businesses?

As has been clearly relayed via the media coverage, there are significant practical challenges for those with land and buildings underwater. Rehousing livestock and loss of feed being just two of the key challenges faced, and these have obvious cost implications. However, the full the economic impact will depend on the longevity of the flooding and particularly what damage is revealed by the receding flood waters. Thousands of hectares of farmland are currently under water.

Any clean-up operation will cost money. Re-seeding will likely be necessary in many areas - for every 100 ha reseeded, this will incur costs of £15,000 in seed alone. Depending on the field operations needed, this amount could easily double once the costs of preparing the ground, applying the seed and re-establishing a healthy grass sward are taken into account. Given the average lowland grazing farm generated a farm business income (profit) of just £16,000 in 2012/13, such costs will have significant financial implications for those farms affected by flooding.  

The speed of recovery is also important. The extent of grazing availability and fodder in spring and summer will determine feed availability through the winter housing period in 2014/15. That might translate to higher feed costs or businesses reducing livestock numbers. In recent weather events, costs have accrued over a longer time period and impacted farm businesses over a number of financial years. It is clear that the fiscal consequences of farms battling with the floods will be much longer lasting than the flood waters or the clear up operation alone.  

Will food prices go up?

Shopping receiptFirstly, it is important to remember that it is not farmers that set food prices.

Pricing is a commercial and strategic decision taken by others in the food supply chain. Of course, higher agricultural commodity prices invariably put pressure on food costs, but we’re not talking about the wet weather here impacting on commodity prices.

In fact, global cereal prices have dropped considerably since harvest 2013, and should be exerting downwards pressure on food prices. The reality is that it’s largely going to be global supply and dynamics that impact on commodity prices rather than any lasting impact of flooding in the UK.

Are there any 'extra' fund for flood management?

Is there any ‘extra’ funding for flood management by farmers?

Pound coin_184_127Farmers undertaking land management measures that reduce risk management can be supported through agri-environment schemes and guidance and support schemes. The Catchment Sensitive Farming initiative, currently offers funding support for such techniques in places where they may also reduce the amount of sediment or pollutants from reaching rivers and improve water quality. However, there is a limited pot of money available.

Outside of agri-environment scheme funding, payments for ‘flood storage’ on land are less common but there are examples where land has been purchased and leased back to farmers such as washlands that defend places such as Tonbridge, Banbury and Lincoln.

Compensatory funding for farmers to store flood water in washlands has been trialled in Germany along the Rhine.

What about tree planting and 're-wilding'?

Some environmentalists say that recent flooding issues could be solved by planting more trees, or letting more areas ‘re-wild’. What are the issues surrounding natural flood management?

Natural flood management techniques broadly focus on attenuating (slowing the flow) of water upstream of flood prone areas either by increasing infiltration or re-wilding watercourses. Techniques include tree planting, swales, silt traps, ponds and bufferstrips. The Environment Agency has published a report on the potential Rural Sustainable Drainage Systems available.

Although natural flood management measures should have an important role to play in reducing flood risk, techniques such as tree planting need to be located carefully and may bring their own set of maintenance requirements. They are not a panacea, and should not be expected to significantly reduce flooding everywhere and on their own.

The NFU would welcome guidance and agri-environment scheme options in the future that facilitated farmers to use natural processes to help control flows in, over and around farms and where appropriate store water. However, because such measures need to be carefully designed for a local area and catchment we don’t think they should be made a requirement on all farmers.

What does the NFU want Environment Agency to do?

On our main rivers* farmers currently need the consent of the Environment Agency to undertake works such as bank repairs or removing silt.

This can be bureaucratic, so seven River Maintenance Pilots are investigating ways of reducing the regulatory burden to ensure the job can get done more efficiently whilst ensuring farmers undertake works in an environmentally sensitive manner.  This work will report after one year in Autumn 2014.

But we also want to see the Environment Agency to undertake more maintenance works themselves on larger more strategic Main Rivers.

* Main rivers are a statutory type of watercourse in England and Wales, usually rivers and larger streams, but also include some smaller watercourses. A main river is defined as a watercourse marked as such on a main river map. The Environment Agency's (or Natural Resource Wales’) powers to carry out flood defence works apply to main rivers only.

Are agri-environment schemes at risk from floods?

Wildflower meadow_274_183Flooding may impact on agri-environment scheme delivery - capital items or options.

If that is the case, members may not meet the terms of their agri-environment agreement. They need to notify Natural England as soon as possible. More information and key links are available on NFUOnline.

Am I still eligible for SPS if my land floods?

Land which is flooded or waterlogged can still be considered eligible for SPS, provided that the flooding is temporary and the land would otherwise still be available for agricultural activity.

However, there are several cross-compliance measures that need to be considered. RPA advice on SPS and flooding is available on NFUOnline.

I'm in an NVZ. How does flooding affect the rules?

The Environment Agency’s guidance states that: ‘If the situation arises that you cannot avoid spreading inunsuitable conditions, you should contact your local Environment Agency office to discuss your short-term options to minimise the risk of causing pollution, and your longer term options to prevent the situation recurring.’

A more detailed briefing on NVZ rules and wet weather is available for members on NFUOnline.

Why are we having problems? Is it climate change?

Global warming_252_275The main reason for the mild and wet weather so far is that we have seen a predominance of West and South-West winds, bringing in mild air from the Atlantic - as well as the unsettled and at times stormy conditions.

Whilst no single event can be directly attributed to climate change, the trend for more intense weather events in recent years could point towards a changing climate. The Met Office’s summary of weather in January is available online.

Why don't farmers store water for the summer?

Water level generic, abstraction, flood._275_208Storing water can help reduce flooding and grants and better regulation to help facilitate farmers to build new reservoirs would be welcome.

However, the volumes needed to significantly reduce the risk of flooding are often very large. This is especially so in lowland areas such as the Fens or Somerset Levels. Also, to capture and store water reservoirs to reduce flooding downstream reservoirs need freeboard (spare capacity) to fill during flood events.

Simply filling reservoirs and then storing water until the summer cannot be the total solution.

What about beavers, could they help?

No. Whilst beavers do create dams which slow the flow of water, once released there would be little control over where they went or what they did.

Beaver with stick_170_193In the Polders of the Netherlands reintroduced beavers  are now digging into and undermining dykes, risking catastrophic failures of defences and adding significantly to maintenance costs.

Furthermore, storms and flood flows can dislodge wood from beaver dams, becoming trapped under bridges downstream causing greater flooding.

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