River systems in the UK have been used and abused for centuries. Much of the damage has been undertaken in an effort to create yet more space for low-yield agriculture. Yet many UK rivers and their floodplains are rather narrow, produce very little food, and could produce far greater benefits if we stepped back and allowed them to function a little more naturally.
The screen shot below is of a pretty typical lowland landscape in southern England. We see the floodplain in pale blue, and river channels in dark blue.
We should create a new classification – Critical Natural Infrastructure – and river corridors should be so classified. This classification signifies the range of system-type benefits rivers and their floodplains provide to society at large (and, of course, to nature).
By stepping back, we can allow river floodplains to store flood water unhindered. Of course, homes and other human infrastructure within these floodplains will need to be protected with localised flood defences and flood-proofing, where this is cost-effective.
By stepping back, we can allow river channels the room to roam, to regain their lost sinuosity, and the riffles, pools and braids critical to fish recruitment and survival.
By stepping back, we provide the space in which beavers can thrive.
By stepping back, the beaver pools will provide the water purification and groundwater recharge so crucial to human health and long-term resilience to climatic changes, such as drought.
Of course, we’ll need to take action in the wider river catchments to address excessive flood water run-off and soil loss, because we don’t want our rivers and their floodplains to act as sinks – dumping grounds – for excessive, dirty water.