New research aims to protect communities at risk from flooding

An innovative project aims to demonstrate that landscape restoration could protect at-risk upland communities from flash flooding.

Professor Joseph Holden, director of water@leeds at the University of Leeds, is co-investigator on the £1.2m project, which will investigate natural flood management methods as a low-cost way to reduce flooding in rural communities that are near steep upland streams and rivers.

Because vulnerable rural communities are often small and spread out they are rarely targeted for expensive traditional flood defences.

Previous research has shown that upland restoration can have a substantial impact on the flow of water during storms. Reintroducing vegetation to bare soils and damming up erosional channels increases the roughness of the land’s surface and slows the flow of water entering streams. This delays the release of water from the uplands and reduces peak stream flow during storms, alleviating the chance of flooding downstream.

Professor Holden, from the School of Geography at Leeds, said: “It is vitally important that we understand how peatland restoration design can support downstream flood management. This new NERC-funded project builds upon a track record of peatland research undertaken by water@leeds and the School of Geography with our partners and will enable us to make a step change in supporting evidence-based investment decisions that benefit communities at risk of flooding.

“It ensures that we can maximise the opportunities to obtain multiple benefits from protecting our peatlands, ranging from storing carbon in the landscape through to reducing flood risk.”

The project will improve understanding of how to dam up erosional channels (gullies), assess the impact of restoring Sphagnum moss cover on moorlands, and determine how newly-planted upland woodlands affect storm flow.

It will also assess the longer-term evolution of woodland and gully blocking approaches, which is important as investment in natural flood management requires confidence in the long-term impact of restoration and maintenance of the interventions.

The project will develop user-friendly computer simulations to assess possible interventions and will work with partners to investigate how the project’s findings can be applied to elsewhere in the UK.

Partners on this project include the University of Manchester, the Moors for the Future Partnership, Durham University and Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and International Union the Conservation for Nature.

“Our previous work has suggested that moorland restoration has the potential to reduce flood peaks downstream,” said project lead Professor Martin Evans, Head of The University of Manchester’s School of Environment, Education and Development. “This funding from NERC will allow us to investigate the degree to which these approaches might offer useful flood risk protection to communities living in the headwaters of our rivers.”

The project is one of only three to be granted funding by NERC (National Environmental Research Council), as part of their Understanding the Effectiveness of Natural Flood Management programme.