Sediment matters - using recent advances to unlock effective catchment decision-making

A photograph of a landscape of Wharfedale.

We live and work in river catchments, they host our agricultural areas, green spaces, and urban centres. Rivers provide drinking water, essential for humans and nature to survive, provide jobs and act as key areas for recreation. Our society is facing many environmental challenges in our landscapes and river catchments (e.g., flooding, water quality), and in a changing climate, safeguarding this environment and ensuring resilience is key.

A critical component of river catchments is sediment -organic and inorganic particles that cover a wide range of sizes and composition. Understanding how sediment behaves within our river catchment systems will ensure sustainability as sediment affects multiple aspects of catchments being healthy. Erosion, transport, and deposition of sediment in river catchments are natural processes, which are strongly influenced by human activities. Sediment is associated with anthropogenic pollutants (e.g. microplastics), soil erosion and carbon loss, water treatment costs, aquatic ecology and biodiversity, and the contentious issue of dredging and flood risk. Recent advances in NERC funded sedimentological research, including using satellite imagery, can have a transformative impact on integrated catchment management if fully incorporated into decision-making processes.

My work will benefit the many organisations and communities working and living in river catchments. The UK is moving towards payment for public goods in the context of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs), Brexit, and 'Building Forward Better'. Recent high profile studies showed that 86% of UK rivers failed to meet ecological good standards, and 40% of these failures were due to run off from agricultural land. There is a large demand from stakeholders to know more about how best to deal with sediment within their catchments.

This fellowship aims to reduce the knowledge gap between researchers and catchment practitioners (statutory, charities, industry) by translating recent advances in the understanding of sediment erosion, transport and deposition into catchment decision-making processes to deliver benefits in water quality, natural flood management and payment for outcome approaches. The fellowship will demonstrate how NERC science is being used in practical applications in catchment management. The proposed work includes:

  1. understanding what information is needed for practitioners to make decisions and the gaps that could be filled by NERC Science,
  2. collating information on the costs associated with sediment,
  3. demonstrating how earth observation (e.g., satellite) data can be used by practitioners,
  4. secondments into organisations to rapidly embed NERC science into current and future projects,
  5. a community of practice, which will allow NERC researchers and practitioners to have a forum to discuss the latest research, best practice and shared challenges.

The fellowship will work with a range of organisations including the Environment Agency, Natural England, Yorkshire Water, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Ricardo Energy and Environment who have different viewpoints, all outputs will be co-designed to ensure maximum impact and reach.


The main impacts from this fellowship will be knowledge exchange across a wide range of sectors ensuring NERC science is embedded into cost-effective catchment management decisions, strengthened business cases, increased landowner engagement, and long-lasting networks.