from Scottish Wildlife Trust magazine, November 2013
Near Cringletie in the Scottish Borders, the river is starting to meander again. For the first time in two centuries, Eddleston Water is being allowed to flow down to join the Tweed in Peebles as it once used to - gently, lazily and naturally.
Since the early 19th century the water has been progressively straitjacketed. Cutting through the green, curving countryside, it has looked like an unnatural slit in the earth, sliced straight by human hand parallel to the A703.
But in August, the Scottish environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, donned a bright blue hardhat and sat in a shiny orange mechanical digger to oversee the opening of a new bend in the river. It’s called “re-meandering”, and it’s modern-day engineers trying to undo the damage that’s been done by their predecessors.
In the past, to recoup land for roads, railways, buildings and farms, rivers have been redirected, realigned, and remade. The trouble is that this has tended to make them flow faster, moving more water, more quickly and causing floods in communities downstream.
Eddleston Water frequently floods Cuddyside in Peebles, which is why it is highlighted by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) as an area of high flood risk. In 2012 the river burst its banks as many as six times after heavy rain, causing much disruption and upset to local residents.
They are breaching artificial riverbanks, damming agricultural ditches and erecting wooden barriers in the middle of the river. They are planting trees and grasses near and far from the river to reduce the amount of rain running off surrounding land.
“There are a whole range of natural flood management measures that can be put in place,” explained Dr Derek Robeson from the Tweed Forum, which co-ordinates the work. “By using nature and natural process to help slow the flow of rainwater into river systems, farmers are co-operating in finding solutions to flooding problems in our towns and villages.”
As well as reducing flooding, he pointed out that the changes could help wildlife. They could attract more salmon, otters and lamprey to the river, as well as enhancing riverside habitats for other animals and plants.
Similar projects aimed at reducing flooding are mobilising across Scotland. Dr Maggie Keegan, head of policy and planning at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, pointed out that the Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Partnership, which brings together Sepa, Scottish Water and local authorities, was trying to use green infrastructure where possible to slow the flow of water.
“Cities and towns need to become water smart and design in natural features such as street trees, green roofs, swales, parks and other green drainage systems to slow water movement,” she said.
“Using such green features instead of grey or hard fixes is a cost effective way of reducing flood risk and also delivers multiple benefits such as improving the quality and liveability of urban places. At the same time the urban environment becomes more attractive to wildlife.”
Keegan argued that this kind of thinking also needed to be applied to whole river catchments. “This can be achieved by planting or encouraging natural tree regeneration and restoring degraded peat bogs upstream,” she said. “Downstream it means restoring wetland systems within the natural flood plain.”
The dangers of flooding for homes and businesses were bound to increase in Scotland because rising carbon pollution was disrupting the climate, she warned. “In some areas winter rainfall has increased by up to 60 per cent.”
According to Peter Singleton, Sepa’s Environmental Futures Manager, there is no longer any such thing as “natural weather” because it is all influenced by the pollution. “Our current understanding of climate change means we will see warmer and wetter weather in the future,” he predicted.
Sepa’s latest flood risk assessment in 2012 suggested that there are 243 areas of Scotland “potentially vulnerable” to flooding. They cover a huge swathe of the central belt, large areas in the south and north and substantial chunks of islands.
Sepa estimated that one in every 22 homes and one in every 13 businesses are at risk of flooding, amounting to over 125,000 properties. The greatest numbers of properties at risk are around the firths of the Clyde and Forth plus Loch Lomond, while there are high proportions of properties at risk in Findhorn, Nairn and Speyside, and around the Tay and the Tweed.
Crucial care, education and emergency services are also vulnerable. According to Sepa, one in ten fire stations are at risk of flooding, as are five per cent of hospitals and health centres, five per cent of residential care homes and four per cent of schools.
In 2014 Sepa is planning to publish new, more detailed, maps of flood hazards across Scotland. These are expected to give communities more information about the exact areas at risk, what the impacts could be and how best to cope with them.
Over the last two decades the price of dealing with 17 major floods and countless minor ones in Scotland has been immense. The average cost of damage to homes, businesses and agriculture is estimated to have been between £720 million and £850 million a year.
The experts say this is going to get worse, and that it’s essential to deploy natural flood management to combat the risk. “Over the past 50 years Scotland has seen a significant increase in winter rainfall and more heavy rainfall events,” said Kirsty Irving, a flood risk manager with Sniffer, a charity working with public agencies to improve climate resilience. “This trend will continue in the decades to come.”
The key, she argued, was to keep water upstream to lessen the impact on households and businesses downstream. “This is a core part of the new flood risk management plans being developed across Scotland,” she said.
This means that more woodlands will be planted, more wetlands created and in urban areas more sustainable drainage systems developed to give water places to soak away. And, as at Cringletie, more rivers will meander as they’re meant to.