Optimising NFM in headwater catchments to protect downstream communities

Natural flood risk management (NFM) describes methods of modifying hillslope and catchment runoff through the modification of landscapes to restore natural hydrological behaviour which limits downstream flood risk. This proposal is for a focussed study of NFM benefits associated with wider ecosystem restoration work which is under way across the uplands of the UK. Headwaters comprise 60-80% of the length of most river systems and high slopes and high rainfall mean that they are important areas of hillslope runoff production. Across the UK there are communities which are prone to flash flooding from steep upland catchments. These headwater catchments are relatively small catchments and are areas where extensive upland restoration is occurring and so they are locations where positive impacts of NFM measures are likely to be observed.

Vulnerable communities in headwaters are often small and dispersed with land values that rarely justify hard engineering flood defences through standard cost-benefit approaches. If relatively low cost upland restoration approaches can mitigate risk to communities such as this then it will be possible to provide some protection to communities where funding precludes hard engineering approaches.

This project will work with project partners Moors for the Future and Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire Environment Agency who have existing funded NFM work in the southern Pennines to undertake a series of field experiments. These will assess the potential impact of various forms of gully blocking, restoration of Sphagnum cover on moorlands, and establishment of upland woodlands on hillslope runoff production and channel flow. It will also assess the longer term evolution of woodland and gully blocking approaches through the study of mature woodland and well established gully blocked systems. This is an important consideration since investment in NFM works requires confidence in the long term impact of the restoration on runoff and knowledge of any ongoing maintenance costs for the interventions. Installation of NFM schemes to mitigate flood risk requires careful planning and prediction of potential impacts.

This project will develop conceptually sophisticated but computationally simple models which can run multiple scenarios in order to assess the catchment wide impacts on runoff of NFM measures implemented to a variety of designs and in a variety of spatial configurations. The model will be developed (with input from project partner CH2M and input from potential users such as EA) and validated using data from the Glossop Brook catchment in Derbyshire which has a history of major flash flooding impacting households in the town of Glossop. The modelling approach will then be used to assess possible NFM interventions in the upland catchments draining to 21 communities at risk on the eastern edge of Greater Manchester. In each of these catchments we will model the optimum configuration of upland restoration measures for NFM benefit.

The project will also work with partners (Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, International Union the Conservation for Nature) to identify existing headwater flow records across the UK which relate to areas of significant upland restoration. At these sites we will model expected impacts and interrogate the available flow data for evidence of these effects on runoff. The project will work with its range of project partners which span England, Wales and Scotland and which comprise regulators, land managers and industry to develop guidelines to optimise future implementation of NFM measures in headwater catchments across upland Britain.