Keeping our rivers flowing

CLA Land Use Policy Adviser Alice Green reports back on the Keeping Our Rivers Flowing Summit 2022.
River in Kendal.jpg

The CLA, Association of Drainage Authorities (ADA), Environment Agency and NFU came together last week to host the Keeping Our Rivers Flowing Summit 2022. With members from all organisations finally meeting in person after a virtual summit in 2021, the discussion was lively.

The theme of this year’s summit was ‘Integrating River and Landscape’ – no small task with climate change and population growth putting increasing pressures on land and water resources alike.

The water environment will bear the brunt of the climate crisis, with summer rainfall decreasing by up to 62% and winter rainfall increasing by 59% by 2050. It is also estimated that peak river flows could be up 27% by this time.

Even without the pressure added by a changing climate, flood defence and river maintenance is a heated topic, with complexities around responsibilities, permissions, and of course, budgets.

While the funding allocation to both capital (new assets) and revenue (maintenance) budgets has increased, the Environment Agency noted that it currently has a £70 million deficit in river and flood defense maintenance funding. This funding gap highlights the scale of the challenge to manage main rivers and flood defenses. The reality is that not all the maintenance required can be delivered to the detriment of nature, property, and food production.

What is more is that the funding gap is actually increasing due to aging assets and the increasing number of assets being put in. As those reading this will be aware, it simply isn’t enough to put in new defense assets: we need to maintain the ones we’ve got so that they are resilient to the pressures of climate change, and this includes proper river maintenance so that water conveyance and storage can be managed at a catchment level.

But our rivers are not without hope. Through collaboration and partnership approaches, successful projects are being delivered to maintain and enhance the capacity of our rivers and their catchments in coping with flood flows.

CLA member Joanna Knight of Dyson Farming presented the impressive work they have undertaken in collaboration with the Environment Agency and other partners to restore the Dunston Beck River in Lincolnshire. Restoring the historic river meanders across seven hectares of floodplain has delivered landscape-scale biodiversity enhancement, alongside water quality and flood protection benefits. Ongoing water quality monitoring and community visits from local schools ensure the project will continue to deliver multiple benefits in the long term.

The summit attendees also heard from Defra about its Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes, and the opportunities the new schemes present for funding for nature-based solutions which can improve river management.

For members of the audience who are experiencing more frequent and severe flood events, it was clear that the overriding sentiment is that more needs to be done. In order to build climate-resilient places that are ready to respond to flooding and coastal change, we need collaboration, but we also need more funding to deliver routine maintenance alongside these innovative collaborative projects.