Transforming River Management & Restoration Through Applied Geomorphology
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Southampton
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Physical Geography and Environmental Geoscience
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Biological Sciences: Ecology
Summary of the impact
Research by the University of Southampton into river processes and
restoration has contributed significantly to the adoption of fluvial
geomorphology as a tool for river management. The research quantified for
the first time, the cost of sediment management in rivers to the UK
economy and environment, arguing that improvements could be achieved by
applying fluvial geomorphology. The research developed new evidence, tools
and training that were adopted by river management agencies and
consultants for the scoping, assessment and planning of projects. This has
resulted in cost-savings through reduced river maintenance, improved river
environments, and the creation of a new employment market for graduates
with geomorphological training.
Reducing the costs of river management on the economy and environment,
whilst balancing the needs of communities for protection against flooding
and erosion is a global challenge (Convention on Biodiversity COP10), and
has been a focus for UK government (Defra), conservation and river
management agency's policy and operational practice (c.f. recent White
papers published in 2011-"Water for Life", "The Natural Choice"). It is
into this challenge that research at Southampton Geography &
Environment has contributed. This research has led to academic leadership
in river restoration and key publications that have influenced the
understanding of our relationship and approach to managing and restoring
1. Managing rivers for sediment, flood risk and erosion.
Professor Sear led the first research [3.1] to assess river
management agencies' approaches to problems such as riverbank erosion and
sediment accumulation in flood channels (1991-1998). Results showed that
UK agencies were spending £20m p.a. removing sediment from rivers and
preventing erosion. Furthermore, many projects were simply unnecessary, or
could be more sustainably addressed by a better understanding of sediment
dynamics and restoring natural processes [3.1]. Subsequently
(1996-2009), research focussed on the development and application of
methods and techniques (termed Fluvial Audits) to integrate fluvial
geomorphology into river management operations [3.1]. This has led
to key publications on the role of fluvial processes in delivering
environmental benefits, and how these contribute to flood and erosion risk
[3.2] — work that was recognised as "one of the most important
pieces of research that has been carried out to examine what might
happen to UK flood risk in the future". Evans, E.P. et al., (2008).
These approaches have been transferred via FAO funded research (2011-13)
to understand the role of channel dynamics during extreme flooding, on
food security in Pakistan.
2. Understanding the benefits and uncertainties of river restoration.
River restoration was implemented as a tool to enhance river channels
damaged by centuries of river management. Initially focussed on ecology,
research led by Sear since 1994, argued that such a narrow focus was
unsustainable without a better understanding of the physical processes [3.3].
Subsequently (2004-2010), Sear and others at Southampton, demonstrated the
importance of understanding sources of uncertainties inherent in restoring
river ecosystems, highlighting how failure to acknowledge and embrace it,
would lead to failures in achieving restoration goals [3.4]. This
resulted in a keynote paper (2010) outlining the evidence and arguments
for a process based approach for restoring river ecosystems, published in
the high impact journal Bioscience [3.5].
3. Quantifying the links between fine sediment delivery from the land
surface and its impact on river ecology. Sear's research from
1993-date and others have pioneered process based approaches to
understanding the impacts of (largely) anthropogenically derived fine
sediments on the ecology of river ecosystems. Fine sediments including
organic matter and nutrients, are recognised as the dominant reason for UK
rivers failing to meet European targets for river ecology. The research
provides fundamental evidence on how the impacts occur across different
species groups, and clearly sets out a reasoned argument for adopting more
targeted approaches to setting sediment targets [3.6 and references
cited in 5.3].
References to the research
3.1 Sear, D.A., Newson, M.D. & Thorne, C.R., Applied Fluvial
Geomorphology, Thomas Telford, 2010, 249p (Peer reviewed).
3.2 Watkinson, A.R. Nicholls,R.J., Sear, D.A. & Ledoux, L.
Environmental impacts of future flood risk, in Thorne, C.R., Evans, E.P.
& Penning-Rowsell, E. (Eds) Future Flooding and Coastal Erosion risks,
Thomas Telford, London, 2007, 29-44 (Peer reviewed).
3.3 Sear, D.A. (1994) River restoration and geomorphology. Aquatic
Conservation. 4, 169-177. (Peer reviewed)
3.4 Darby, S.E. & Sear, D.A., eds., River Restoration:
managing the uncertainty in restoring physical habitat, J.Wiley &
Sons, Chichester, 2008, 21-42. (Peer reviewed).
3.5 Beechie,T.J., Sear,D.A., Olden,J.D., Pess,G.R.,
Buffington,J.M., Moir,H., Roni,P., & Pollock,M.M. (2010) Process-based
Principles for Restoring River Ecosystems, Bioscience, 60,3:57-68. (Peer
3.6 Collins, A.L., Naden, P.S., Sear, D.A., Jones, J.I., Foster,
I.D.L. & Monnow, K. (2012) Sediment targets for informing river
catchment management:international experience and prospects, Hydrological
Processes, 25, 13, 2112-2129. (Peer reviewed).
Details of the impact
The application of fluvial geomorphology has changed the approach of
river authorities around the world to the management and restoration of
waterways, in part as a result of 20 years of research led by Professor
Sear, which began in the early 1990s when he developed new methods and
quantified the fiscal and environmental costs of sediment management to
the UK economy. River management agencies and environmental engineering
consultants now routinely apply tools and training he and his co-authors
developed for the scoping, assessment and planning of river restoration
and river management projects [5.1-5.3], resulting in the creation
of a new employment market for graduates with geomorphological training [5.3].
River restoration is a £billion global industry and the main river
management tool for redressing the impacts of human modification of
rivers. Sear's pioneering research in this area has helped support the UK
River Restoration Centre (RRC) via his role as Director (currently
Associate Director) [5.1], when he was instrumental in setting up
the annual RRC conference which attracts international practitioners and
scientists in river restoration and is a key industry KE event [5.1].
Southampton research has led to the development of tools like Fluvial
Audits, guidebooks and E-learning training packages, all of which are
currently shaping the river management policy and practice of the
Environment Agency [5.3], Natural England [5.5] and the
Scottish Environment Protection Agency [5.6]. The Guidebook of
Applied Fluvial Geomorphology (2003; 2010) has become the default
reference on geomorphology within the organisations mentioned above [5.1-5.3].
Alongside the production of these tools, geomorphological research at
Geography & Environment at Southampton has been used to underpin the
Environment Agency (EA) and Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
policy and guidance on sediment management [5.7-5.9] which is used
on a routine basis to support engineering and river restoration practices
[5.2,5.3,5.5]. Direct knowledge transfer from this research into
industry has been supported via training to more than 100 EA staff [5.2],
which has influenced operational practice [5.3-5.4]. Most recently
(2012-13), this has involved training of 120 EA staff in Hydromorphology [5.3],
whilst the E-learning modules have been taken by over 500 river managers
and consultants in the UK and abroad [5.2].
The Fluvial Audit methods developed by Sear and his colleagues in GeoData
have been adopted by all the key commercial environmental consultancies
like Jacobs, Halcrow and Atkins [5.1-5.2] and have been used to
guide strategic and operational river management and restoration projects
on more than 70 rivers across the UK, in the United States and Asia (e.g.
Goswami). The method was an integral part of the first international
demonstration river restoration site on the River Cole at Coleshill (UK),
beginning in 1994, and was developed by Sear and colleagues in GeoData
into the standard tool for use in River Restoration strategies for SSSI
and SAC rivers [5.5], the latter being cited as a best practice
example in Natural England's evidence to the Government Committee on
Environment, and resulting in improvements to the aquatic environment over
100 kilometres of UK river [5.4].
In 2004, Sear's research contributed to the Office of Science and
Technology's Foresight Future Flooding Report, which set the agenda for
the Defra `Making Space for Water' consultation exercise leading to the
2005 Defra policy document `Making Space for Water'. These marked a shift
away from structural (embankments, flood channels) and hard engineering
solutions for flood and erosion risk management, and instead placed more
emphasis on working with natural processes and adopting catchment based
solutions. Through this process the Foresight evidence was used to
underpin the 2009 Draft Water Bill (10, pg 7) which is impacting on
current policy and practice in UK water management [5.3, 5.5].
Most recently, NERC funded (NE/I002219/1) research led by Sear on the
catastrophic flooding in Cumbria in 2009 has contributed to Environment
Agency (EA) policy on sediment management [5.1], and has, through
his work on the LWEC (Living with Environmental Change) working group on
Flood and erosion risk research, led to the inclusion of fluvial
geomorphology within the LWEC National Research Strategy for Flood and
Coastal Erosion Risk Management in 2011, and the developing research
strategy for EA/Defra on Working with Natural Processes (Invited
participant Sheffield Workshop Sept. 2013).
Thus, Geography and Environment research at Southampton, led by Professor
Sear, has had a demonstrable impact on river environments and their
management within the UK, through the provision of evidence (e.g. Cumbrian
Flood Impacts), guidance (E-Learning, Guidebook, and Training) and
Knowledge Transfer (e.g. Foresight Report) direct to industry and
Sources to corroborate the impact
Although limited to 10 references, further information is available via
the individuals who have provided letters of Commendation, and additional
web/documentary evidence is available should this be required.
5.1 Corroborating letter from Principal Consultant, Atkins Global,
Hydromorphology and River Restoration/Management.
5.2 Corroborating statement from Technical Specialist, Environment
5.3 Corroborating letter from Head of Fisheries and Biodiversity,
5.4 Corroborating letter from Principal Freshwater Ecologist,
5.5 Corroborating statement from former Head of Flood risk
management and Environment Agency.
5.6 Pahuja, S., Goswami, D., (2006) A fluvial geomorphology
perspective on the knowledge base of the Brahmaputra, Development and
Growth in Northeast India: The Natural Resources, Water, and Environment
Nexus Background Paper, No. 3, World Bank, 51p.
5.7 Environment Agency (2004a) Environment Agency Policy — The
Removal of Gravel from Rivers, Policy Number 359_04. (available upon
5.8 Environment Agency 2013: Good practice management of
5.9 SEPA (2010). Engineering in the water environment:good
practice guide Sediment management, http://www.sepa.org.uk/water/water_regulation/guidance/engineering.aspx
5.10 DEFRA (2009). Flood and Water management Bill (Draft)- Impact
Assessment — new definition of Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management
and strategic overview.