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An Assessment of the Impact of Floodplain Woodland on Flood Flows

Date: 2006

Evidence type: Research

Organisation: Forest Research

Author(s): Thomas, H. & Nisbet, T.

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A research paper which examines the potential role of floodplain woodland in flood alleviation. In theory, the presence of trees and associated woody debris on the floodplain increases the hydraulic roughness, thus slowing down flood flows and enhancing flood storage. One and two-dimensional models were used to simulate a 2.2km reach of river in south-west England to test this theory for a 1 in 100 year flood using appropriate roughness parameters. Both models predicted a reduction in water velocity within the woodland, increasing water level by up to 270mm and creating a backwater effect that extended nearly 400m upstream. Flood storage increased by 15 and 71%, while flood peak travel time was increased by 30 and 140 min for the two scenarios simulated. The results suggest that there is considerable scope for using strategically placed floodplain woodland to alleviate downstream flooding. In particular, it offers a means of tackling the increased flood risk associated with climate change.

Key Messages

Softer engineering techniques which are based on the principle of impeding run-off from the land and river flows following an extreme rainfall event by providing areas of semi-permanent or permanent wetland to store flood water and delay the downstream passage of the flood peak are becoming more popular.

A range of options are currently being considered including the creation of washlands, river corridor widening and river restoration.

Green infrastructure type
Water courses; Water bodies; Wetlands
Climate change role/function
Managing riverine flooding; Managing surface water

The main mechanism whereby floodplain woodland could aid flood defence is by slowing the downstream passage of a flood peak, resulting in a lower but longer duration event.

Floodplain woodland is thought to have naturally carried out this role in the past, and its historic removal may have contributed to an increase in flooding severity.

Climate change role/function
Managing riverine flooding; Managing surface water

Case study - Parrett Catchment.

The River Parrett is one of a number of major river systems in the country facing a serious and recurrent flooding problem.  


The roughness associated with the presence of a complete cover of woodland on the north side of the floodplain increased the flood level by around 190mm.  


Both floodplain woodland scenarios significantly increased the cumulative flood volume stored within the modelled reach.  


As expected, the presence of trees, undergrowth and woody debris decreased the water velocity over the floodplain, both within and upstream of the wooded area.  


The presence of a 50 ha central block of woodland would increase the downstream progression of the flood peak by 30 min.

Green infrastructure type
Woodland; Wetlands
Climate change role/function
Managing riverine flooding

Concern has been raised about the backing-up of floodwaters upstream of floodplain woodland, which could threaten propoerties in the immediate vicinity.

The modelling work demonstrated that water levels were raised by up to 190mm immediately above the forest. The implications of this factor would need to be carefully considered on a site-by-site basis when assessing the suitability of individual sites for the restoration of floodplain woodland.

Green infrastructure type
Climate change role/function
Managing riverine flooding

Although it is very unlikely that floodplain woodland on its own would be able to provide complete protection for downstream towns or cities, it could make a valuable contribution alongside existing flood defences to tackling the increased risk of flooding associated with climate change.

Green infrastructure type
Climate change role/function
Managing riverine flooding
Document Analysis


Level of document
Geographical area to which document refers
United Kingdom
Is 'green infrastructure' mentioned?
Relevant to climate change...
Is it relevant to other (non-climate change) benefits of green infrastructure?
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