Comment: We must take a big picture approach to beat floods

A couple of days shy of a month on from the Boxing Day floods and it's safe to say that water management is what everyone is talking about.

Farmers on flood plains expect their fields to flood.

The thousands of acres of Yorkshire farmland that has been submerged for all this time is slowly starting to emerge and farmers are now getting to grips with the clean-up operation and the task of getting their fields back into productive use.

The nation had a wide ranging debate on how to manage the flooding risk following the Somerset Levels flooding in 2014, but this has been renewed in the face of yet another major event – this time across Yorkshire and the North.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I think everyone is agreed that we’re desperately in need of more comprehensive plans to deal with such events, but views on what this ‘master plan’ might look like differ. Protecting people’s homes must take priority but we can’t ignore the impact on local businesses – including farm businesses where no insurance cover is available for crop or unhoused livestock losses.

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and everyone agrees that more needs to be done to agree how rivers and other watercourses respond to heavy rainfall events. River catchments are complex networks but with the scientific tools now at our disposal, a detailed review is long overdue.

Given the complexity of the task ahead, it isn’t surprising the media has picked up on different approaches that are often presented as being on opposite sides of the fence - such as ‘slowing the flow’ vs watercourse dredging. Both approaches have their place and both are already being used to a greater or lesser extent.

Work to hold water back in the uplands has been going on for years – with farmers now undoing the work their grandfathers were required to do by government policies of the day. This work has included blocking up ‘grips’ or upland drainage channels, tree planting and installing engineered dams made of woody debris. Slopes are being re-profiled and water storage ponds introduced. This is all designed to intercept, store, slow and filter water to lessen the impact downstream. This approach can be very effective but is costly and isn’t a ‘silver bullet’.

Once the water gets to the low lying land and is on its way out to sea, that’s where we need to make sure water can get away as quickly as possible. To do that, ongoing maintenance of watercourses is essential.

The other element often discussed is how farmland can be used to ‘store’ floodwater to the benefit of urban areas. It’s a fact that without the thousands of acres of farmland recently flooded, the impact on our towns and cities would have been much worse.

Farmers who farm the fertile land of natural flood plains expect their land to flood, and plan for that. But the increasing frequency of flooding is making it extremely difficult for those farmers to bear the cost alone. Regular uninsured losses amounting to tens of thousands of pounds puts a huge strain on small family businesses – especially when simultaneously facing the uncertainly that comes with increasing volatility in farmgate returns.

The NFU believes the nation must recognise the water storage service that farmers provide, especially if this is to be increased with farms ‘actively’ flooded to protect homes. Ultimately we all have a role to play in meeting this challenge, but a ‘big picture’ approach must be adopted to achieve a solution that benefits everyone.

James Copeland is the regional environment and land Use adviser for the NFU in the North East.