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Flooding 4: Managing the upper drainage basin

river water flowing over a weir, reflecting yellow light of sunset

Suitable for GCSE and A level

Media reports often focus on the impacts of flooding on urban areas. At GCSE geography students are familiar with hard engineering strategies used to control rivers as they flow through our towns and cities. Capital intensive programmes that use hard engineering to control rivers or coastal environments are one intervention strategy used by the Environment Agency. However, the Environment Agency also promotes working with nature to manage flood risk in drainage basins and in coastal environments. Environment Agency documents refer to this intervention strategy as:

  • working With Natural Processes (WWNP)
  • natural Flood Management (NFM).

The Environment Agency estimates that Natural Flood Management can reduce flood risk by between 5% and 25%, although the potential benefits are very scheme-specific.

Diagram source: Environment Agency 2017

This resource focuses on how the Environment Agency and its partners are working with natural processes in the upper part of several UK drainage basins. The resource examines natural flood management strategies and a case study of river restoration on Swindale Beck in Cumbria. Swindale Beck is a tributary of the River Lowther, which in turn is a tributary of the River Eamont. Water from this catchment creates flood risk in Penrith, which is approximately 15 km downstream of the restoration project.

Specification requirements

The movement of water through a drainage basin is the focus of several GCSE specifications and river management is a feature of all of them. Download the GCSE specification audit.

River processes and landforms do not feature in the A level specifications. However, the water cycle and the concept of the drainage basin as a system is common to all. In particular, this resource will help students understand the relationship between stores and flows. Download the A level specification audit.

Learning objectives

This resource can be used to meet one or more of the following objectives:

  • consolidate prior learning about flows and stores within the drainage basin
  • investigate ways in which natural processes within the drainage basin can reduce the risk of flooding
  • create a case study of a river restoration scheme.

Download the Assessment Objectives.

GCSE activities

If you haven’t used Resource 1 or 2 then you might want to create a ‘need to know’ list:

  • Why do we manage rivers in upland areas? Who benefits?
  • Which communities are downstream of Swindale Beck?

The flood risk in Penrith can be investigated using Get the Data, which provides an online flood risk map. If you haven’t used Resource 1, then it would help students understand the wider context by watching the video A New Type of River Management is Coming. This animation highlights the ways in which the risk of river flooding can be reduced by working with nature. Students can focus on enquiry questions such as:

  • How have rivers been altered in the past?
  • Why have these changes increased the flood risk today?

The animation is packed with information. These teacher notes provide some further explanation.

Case study of river restoration

The Environment Agency has worked with partner organisations (the RSPB, United Utilities and Natural England) to restore meanders on a section of Swindale Beck, in Cumbria, that had been historically straightened. Teachers will find a detailed description of the project is available on the Restore Rivers wiki. Students will find the short RSPB video useful. They might use the video to investigate the following enquiry questions:

  • Which river landforms have been restored?
  • How has this changed the flow of the river?
  • How has restoration helped to reduce flood risk downstream?
  • What other strategies have been used to reduce flood risk?
  • What have been the impacts on wildlife?

The Swindale Beck student worksheet can be used in support of the RSPB video to organise the students’ thinking.

Students could use OS map evidence from the 1888-1913 six inch map to support their investigation. Swindale Beck appears to be unnaturally straight, especially when compared to the more natural meandering and braided form of the river a few hundred metres downstream to the east. The satellite image currently shows the straightened river – evidently the image was taken before the restoration of 2016. The side-by-side view of Penrith clearly shows how the town’s suburbs have grown since 1913 with southern suburbs now close to Dog Beck and Thacka Beck.

scheme to store flood water on Thacka Beck as the river flows into the north-western outskirts of Penrith can be seen in the satellite image. The present-day meandering stream and storage ponds to the east of the Eden Business Park contrast well with the artificially straight section of river shown in the six inch map.

Further research

  • Watch three short films (each less than three minutes) that describe natural flood management.
  • Watch videos that describe river restoration strategies. These can be viewed on the website of the River Restoration Centre. The site includes an interactive map. By clicking on the pins students could develop their own case study of a river management scheme.

A level activities

The GCSE activities described above could be used to introduce learning at A level. In addition, A level students could be involved in evaluating or comparing a range of different NFM strategies. If so, the key Environment Agency document for A level student research would be Working with Natural Processes Evidence Directory. This large pdf document is available here. Go to page 12 where students will find a diagram that represents drainage basins and coastal environments. Hyperlinks within the diagram will take students to the relevant pages of the document that describe and assess specific NFM strategies.

Students could use this research to focus on enquiry questions such as:

  • What processes occur in the water cycle at the local scale?
  • How do changes to land use (including agriculture) or vegetation affect interception, vegetation and surface stores?
  • How do human actions both exacerbate and mitigate flood risk?

If time is limited, focus the students’ research on the following strategies, as these will support understanding of stores and flows and provide sufficient opportunities for comparison and evaluation:

  • Headwater drainage management
  • Leaky barriers
  • Catchment woodland

Remember, river channel processes and river landforms are not part of any A level specification so students must be discouraged from selecting an independent investigation that focuses on river channel processes or landforms. However, an independent investigation of stores and flows of water in the drainage basin would be acceptable. For students considering this approach, the website of the River Restoration Centre could be useful, especially this fact sheet on Understanding your river, which offers sensible ideas for primary and secondary data collection.


Other lessons in this series:

Flood risk and flood management: Introduction
Flooding 1: Causes of river floods
Flooding 2: Investigating the effects of river floods
Flooding 3: Response to floods: Oxford Case Study
Flooding 5: Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS)
Flooding 6: Managing river floods – exploring the role of the Environment Agency
Flooding 7: Coastal flooding at Chiswell
Flooding 8: Managed realignment
Flooding 9: The role of the Environment Agency in coastal management and the development of shoreline management plans

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