Community Involvement in UK Catchment Management

January 2015

River catchments, also known as watersheds or drainage basins, are naturally complex systems. The water environment is also heavily relied upon and modified by human activities. Catchment managers therefore encounter multiple issues relating to flooding, drought, poor water quality, sedimentation, erosion and habitat degradation, along with climate change projections. These recurring catchment issues have led to various policies and frameworks within the context of European legislation to support the management of catchments across the UK, and have triggered changes in the way catchments are now managed and the level of involvement on a local scale.

Long term observations are required to characterise catchment behaviour, implement effective mitigation measures and meet policy targets. Monitoring equipment such as automatic rain and river level gauges are well-established within the hydrological community, offering reliable datasets. However, largely due to cost constraints, traditional monitoring networks still provide limited spatial coverage, particularly within rural catchments. Catchment managers, scientists and engineers have often worked independently from the people that they serve, making it difficult for communities to truly understand their local catchment, share their own knowledge and understand catchment data produced by ‘professionals’.

Defra’s Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) policy framework provides an example of how the UK is now encouraging a more integrated, evidence based and bottom-up approach, allowing for greater partnership for communities to be involved on a local level. Community Flood Plans also demonstrate how local people are becoming more actively involved in flood risk management. Natural Flood Management has also emerged over recent years as an innovative way of managing multiple catchment issues. Pilot sites, such as Belford in Northumberland, are influencing how catchments are, and will be, managed in the future. Long term evidence of individual catchment behaviour and stakeholder engagement will therefore be required.

Citizen science projects are becoming increasingly popular across a range of disciplines to expand our knowledge about the natural environment, and are relatively well developed in some areas, for example in wildlife observation. These projects rely on volunteers to contribute to the knowledge production process by actively collecting, processing and sharing information. Similar approaches are developing in hydrological science, but are not yet well organised nationally. Existing approaches used in the UK and internationally are described, and examples are given from several innovative projects, including the Haltwhistle Burn catchment (Northumberland), where low-cost and simple monitoring techniques are being used by local people to make spatially-detailed observations about their local water environment. This approach to catchment monitoring offers various social and educational benefits, including bridging the gap between professionals and stakeholders, increasing locals’ awareness and understanding of catchment connectivity, and empowering and supporting decision making on a local level. There are a wide range of end users for this type of data, including catchment modellers who require evidence to support their outputs, which should also be conveyed back to the citizen scientists in a meaningful way.

This Review of Current Knowledge (ROCK) highlights issues related to monitoring and understanding the complexity of river catchments which are subject to multiple pressures. It details how countries, such as the UK, are beginning to manage catchments on a local level with involvement due to the rapid growth in technology and communication facilities, which can and should be utilised in innovative ways (and to our advantage) to support the management of river systems.

Copies of the ROCK are available from the Foundation, price £15.00, less 20% to FWR members

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