On The Edge – have we forgotten the way of the river?
All of life needs water. But do many of us consider the natural function of the systems we rely on and how we might reduce the increasing pressures on them? The river system is far more than a simple channel, they are the arteries of our countryside and connect water beyond visible river boundaries. Just six months ago Sir James Bevan, CEO of the Environment Agency (EA), warned that water scarcity presents an existential threat. “Climate adaptation, measures to increase water quantity as well as quality, are now vital. But not enough is being done.”
Water stress will soon become the biggest climate risk facing large swathes of Europe, and Britain is no exception. Recent extremes include May 2020 achieving the driest summer on record and, conversely, February 2021 had more flood warnings than ever before: 594 across the country. So as drought is a more frequent reality, why can’t we store more of that flood water for later in the year?
The EA states we don’t have enough infrastructure to store water from wetter winters. Of course there is a natural solution. If river systems were functioning normally, without human intervention, the land would do the job better than infrastructure, it would store a significant amount of that flood water in floodplains and wetlands along the whole catchment. But the wetlands required to do this barely even exist anymore.
The draining of wetlands
The story of the loss of our wetlands over 100-200 years is fascinating and complex, but their drainage and near-total loss has led to heavily degraded ecosystem function. Low summer flows, spaced winter flows; all have devastating knock-on effects for wildlife and our own water supply. Historic wetlands would’ve allowed the rivers to breathe, to cope with change in frequency and volume of flow. But we’ve lost 92% of them.
Thankfully, there are measures we can take and pockets of heroic and forward-thinking work already under way in river restoration. Some of which involve the elusively named and hard-to-define concept of ‘river buffers’. Despite its many interpretations, the fact remains that when we step back and give our rivers the space they deserve, society can benefit. But this is not an easy task in a small, heavily populated country that manages land down to the last inch.
That said, in this age of climate and biodiversity emergency we need to find simple solutions to address these complex problems. So perhaps giving up smaller stretches of land along lengthy river corridors could be a way of making more space for nature, storing more carbon and helping clean the water that we all rely on.
So what are river buffer zones?
Restoring river buffers is about reversing centuries of human encroachment on river function, and the concept is gaining traction and support for its multiple benefits and relatively low land-take requirement. But, as with much of the natural world, they remain hard to define.
Firstly, it is not just about a strip of land next to a river, because the aim is to allow the river system to work, hydrologically, ecologically and in connection with a fluctuating water table which spreads well beyond the river itself. How wide a natural buffer might be depends hugely on the topography of the area. But in its most basic form, restoring a river buffer is about giving the river room to breathe, for vegetation and trees to develop and some protection from the impacts of modern living.
The most important buffer of all is the wetland buffer. People assume wetlands lie immediately next to rivers, but often the driest point is right on the bank by the river. The naturally wettest point might be 20 metres or more away but has been historically drained (through grant funding). Hydrologically functioning wetlands would pick up the flow and trap it, deal with it, process it, so it’s already been cleaned by time it re-enters the river. This is especially important in areas close to agriculture and areas with high nitrates.
Natural nature corridors
Despite the complexity of restoring natural function, rivers remain our truest and most widespread natural nature corridors for wildlife and biodiversity recovery, so allowing a basic buffer zone along all British watercourses could build considerable resilience in the short-medium term as well as helping to connect up habitats.
The potential gains of giving more space to water will always be context dependent, but they include biodiversity and bio-abundance gains, water quality improvements, topsoil retention, filtration of agricultural pollutants, water temperature cooling, increased public access bringing better nature connectedness, and ultimately a strong step toward more stable river systems. Not only that, but if we’re true systems thinkers, we must be conscious that everything that goes into rivers goes into the sea.
How hard would it be to implement river buffers?
Many projects are in progress reconnecting rivers with floodplains. Naturally though, with any land use change comes barriers to implementation – policy, public acceptance, scale of uptake, funding and many more… but sitting atop the list comes farming and the multitude of environmental asks already on farmers’ plates. Any new policy will have to consider the impacts on the farming community and seek to simplify the implications. Farmers and land managers must be supported in the change – and not just financially.
On The Edge: making room for rivers
Beaver Trust’s new documentary, On The Edge, seeks to catalyse action on buffers, exploring the vision and challenges of restoring river buffer zones, walking with experts to better understand the opportunity and risk. Working for the second time with the talented Nina Constable Media, the 18 minute film investigates what lies in and around rivers, and what would happen if we gave nature space to revert to healthy ecosystems along all watercourses, how the sponge effect of wetlands could help store water, what that might mean for life in and on the edge of our rivers, and how this sits alongside agricultural management.
Like the rest of the ‘wilding’ movement, this remains a human problem. Wilder rivers are not something everyone is comfortable with. But freshwater should be everyone’s business, it should matter to every single person how we look after our rivers, how we pay those managing the land to look after our water systems.
What seems plain, once again, is that turning to nature for assistance seems the sensible, systemic and sustainable solution. Time to build a vision for recovering our riverscapes and make that the basis for decision-making on policy, payments and associated environmental land management.
We warmly invite you to join us for a very special LIVE online premiere of On The Edge, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers: Wednesday 27th April 19:00 (GMT). Register for your free ticket today.
Director of Communications, Beaver Trust
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© Eva Bishop 2022.