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Describe the factors and processes controlling flooding in river catchments and for a

case of study of your choice critically assess the effectiveness of flood protection and

alleviation [by Ramiro Aznar Ballarín]


Floods are one of the most damaging and dangerous natural hazards (Wheater, 2006).

According to recent climate change scenarios (Hulme et al., 2002), flood risk in UK can be

expected to increase. Therefore, it seems highly important to understand the agents and

dynamic of this hydro-geological process as well as the negative impacts on human settings

and infrastructures in order to manage it sustainably.

In the first section of this work, I will describe the main factors and processes controlling

flooding in river catchments. Whilst in the second part of the assignment, I will discuss the

effectiveness of the Jubilee River, the artificial river channel created to reduce flood risk in the

area of Windsor, Eton and Maidenhead (Berkshire, UK).

Factors and processes controlling flooding in river catchments

In rivers, floods can be generated by three main causes. First, river floods are caused

almost entirely by excessively heavy and or/prolonged rainfall or, in areas of snow or ice

accumulation, by periods of prolonged and/or intense melt (Ward and Robinson 1990). Other

climatological-related floods are triggered by rain-on-snow and glacier breaches (jökulhlaups).

Thus, precipitation and temperature are decisive meteorological variables for producing

floods. According to Frei et al. (2000), the basin and time-integrated precipitation amounts as

well as the temporal evolution and spatial distribution within the catchment play an essential role

for the development of flooding. A good example of this is the catastrophic flood of June 2000 in

the Upper Guil catchment (Queyras, Southern French Alps). Arnaud-Fassetta et al. (2005)

points out that one of the main aggravating factors was the storm movement along the drainage

system. The rainfall started from the southernmost part of the catchment and then moved

northwest, propagating downstream at the same pace as the flood wave. Surface air

temperature, on the other hand, determines the partitioning into snow and rain during the

precipitation event and partially controls the runoff from snow and ice melt and determines the

amount of soils and plants evapotranspiration (Frei et al., 2000).

Estuarine (and coastal) floods are caused by the second major ecological factor, storm

surges. These natural events are created by the interaction of very high tides, onshore winds

and low atmospheric pressure (Jones, 1997). Finally, there are other infrequent causes of

flooding which are indirectly related with climatological events: tsunami produced by

earthquakes, landslides into enclosed or semi-enclosed water bodies (Fig. 2) and the failure of

dams and other water control human structures (Ward, 1978).

Figure 2. Photograph of the landslide dam which blocked the Poerua River (Westland, New Zealand) in October

1999 (a); oblique photograph of Poerua in October 1999 - 2 days after the dam

break (b) (based on Hancox et al., 2005).

The magnitude of a particular flood is determined by the interaction between the

triggering factors mentioned above and the river basin characteristics. Thus, the final

expression of a flood in a specific catchment depends on the basin properties, and channel and

channel network characteristics (Ward, 1978). First, according to Ward and Robinson (1990),

the major basin features can be divided in area, shape, slope, aspect and altitude. They argue

that the area affects both the time of concentration (the shortest time in which the whole of the

drainage basin contributes to the streamflow) and the total volume of runoff; shape is

associated with the concept of bifurcation ratio (Rb); water movement increase with slope; and

aspect and altitude affect both the amount and type of precipitation as well as the extent to

which is effectiveness is altered by evaporation.

Moreover, the properties of the hillslope materials, especially infiltration capacities and

lateral permeabilities in the topsoil as well as the preexisting conditions of temperatures and

humidity of the soils are considered key factors in the development of floods (Jones, 1997). Frei

et al. (2000) illustrates that frozen or moisture-saturated soils have a limited infiltration and

moisture-storage capacity, which tends to accelerate the runoff process. In an investigation

about the 2000 floods carried out in England and Wales, Holman et al. (2003) demonstrates

that most soils suffered compactation and structural damage because they were wet during

critical times for land management (the spring and early summer of 2000 were particularly wet),

such as for ploughing or harvesting. Soil structural damage led to a significantly reduction in soil

water storage and infiltration capacity, thus increasing runoff and consequent flooding.

According to Ward (1978), drainage pattern is associated with Rb and basin shape. He

goes on to argue that dendritic drainage (low values of Rb ), on the one hand, are usually related

to sharp high-magnitude floods at the lower catchment due to the coalescence of flows from a

number of major tributaries. Trellised drainage systems (high values of Rb), on the other hand,

are patterns that permit the evacuation from the catchment of flood flows from the downstream

tributaries before those from the upstream tributaries have arrived, thus having a more

moderated flood response. Ward and Robinson (1990) also points out the importance of the

total area of interconnected saturated surface within the catchment network. This determines

the volume of quick flow produced by a precipitation/melt event. Roughness, bed and bank

materials, vegetation and load are also channel aspects that determine the flood intensity within

a catchment.

An important factor that usually aggravates flood conditions is wildfire. Moody and

Martin (2001) suggest that this natural disturbance alter some watershed characteristics in four

different interconnected ways. First, wildfire decreases the canopy interception, which increases

the percentage of rainfall available for runoff. Second, fires reduce the water normally lost as

evaporation, which increases the base flow. Third, wildfires also consume ground cover, litter,

duff, and debris, which increases runoff velocities and reduces interception and storage. Fourth,

wildfires alter the chemical properties of the soil that affect infiltration and, thus, the hydrologic

response. In the summer of 2006, Galicia (Spain) suffered the worst series of fires (Fig. 3 a) of

the last centuries. The immediate economic losses were about 300 millions; however, this

estimation was gauge without taking into consideration the losses resulted from floods (Fig. 3 b)

caused partially by post-fire effects such as erosion and decrease of soils infiltration capacity

(Barrio et al., 2007).

Figure 3. Satellite image of the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 2006 summer fires (a); picture of the

consequences of one of the subsequent floods (b).

The majority of these fire episodes were initiated by humans. In the case of floods,

human factors can both intensify them. Table 1 illustrates the three main human effects on

altering flood conditions within river catchments: water supply engineering, land surface

changes and channel modification. Aside from these alterations, Jones et al. (2000) highlight

the importance of roads within watersheds. They suggest that roads interact with flows in four

different ways, they can act as a corridor, a barrier, a sink or a source, and, thus, roads can

significantly alter the direction and intensity of floods.

Table 1. Human effects on flooding within river catchments (based on Jones, 1997).

Water Supply Engineering Land Surface Changes Channel Modification

Dam construction, operating rules

Urbanization Land drainage
and failures
River regulation and conjuctive use
Deforestation/afforestation Channel straightening
of groundwater
Interbasin transfer Agriculture and husbandry Flood protection works
Water abstraction and irrigation

The Jubilee River

In 1992 the National Rivers Authority (NRA) promoted the latest major scheme, the

Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton Alleviation Scheme (MWEFAS), a substantial part of it is the

Jubilee River (Fig. 4 a), an 11.6 Km flood relief artificial river channel to the north-east of the
natural River Thames, with a design capacity of 215 m /s (Onions, 2004) and for the

approximately 1 in 60 year event (Wheater, 2006). It was opened 20 years later and built at a

cost of £110 million. In addition, the area around the channel has been landscaped, new

riparian and aquatic habitats created and a footpath and cycleway added (Fig. 4 b).

During the winter 2003 floods, the River Thames catchment experienced the largest
flood event since 1947. To prevent flooding, 140 m /s were diverted from the River Thames into

the Jubilee River. Despite protecting the area of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton Water, Datchet

and Wraysbury were flooded and a number of structures and areas of embankment along the

Jubilee River suffered significant damage, e.g. Black Potts Viaduct (Fig. 4 a). Atkins, an

engineering consultancy commissioned by the Environmental Agency, concluded that the actual

capacity of the Jubilee River was below the anticipated capacity as identified in the original

planning application (Atkins, 2007). Thus, according to Atkins’ recommendations, flood defense

were increased in key locations. In contrast, Onions, a consultant civil engineer with Arup,

stated that the operation of the Jubilee River did not increase levels by more than 2-3 mm at or

below the confluence (Onions, 2004).

Figure 4. Jubilee River at the Black Potts in December 2009 (a); and footpath and riparian vegetation planted in the

surrounding area (b).

It is difficult to determine the global effectiveness of the new flood defences in the

Jubilee River. However, there have been developed some environmental sustainable measures

such as the creation of riparian habitats and the use of sustainable drainage systems (SUDS)

which promote riverine biodiversity, create buffer zones for water (DEFRA, 2005) and reduce

the local runoff which move toward a more sustainable flood risk management within the River

Thames catchment. In regard to the debate about role played by the Jubilee River in the 2000

floods only can promote the emergence of more and alternative solutions.


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man-made structures during the catastrophic flood of June 2000 in the Upper Guil catchment

(Queyras, Southern French Alps). Geomorphology 66, 41-67.

Atkins. (2007). Jubilee River Post 2003 Recommendations Closure Report. Prepared for the

Environment Agency, pp. 36.

Barrio, M., Loureiro, M. and Chas, M.L. (2007). Aproximación a las pérdidas económicas

ocasionadas a corto plazo por los incendios forestales en Galicia en 2006. Economía Agraria y

Recursos Naturales 7(14), 45-64.

DEFRA (2005). Making space for water: Taking forward a new Government strategy for flood

and coastal erosion risk management in England. First Government response to the autumn

2004 Making space for water consultation exercise. London: Department of Environment Food

and Rural Affairs Publications.

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Hancox, G.T., McSaveney, M.J., Manville, V.R. and Davies, T.R. (2005). The October 1999 Mt

Adams rock avalanche and subsequent landslide dam-break flood and effects in Poerua River,

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