Measuring Groundwater Levels via Satellite – New Research

Researchers at Stanford University USA are using satellites to measure the amount of groundwater in the Earth

June 27th 2014

Geophysicists at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment are using satellite readings taken hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface to measure changes in groundwater levels. The satellites use electromagnetic waves to monitor changes in the elevation of the Earth’s surface to within a millimetre. The technology, known as Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), has previously been used to collect data on volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides.

With funding from NASA and the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford, the researchers used InSAR to make measurements at 15 locations in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Based on observed changes in the Earth’s surface, the scientists compiled water-level measurements for confined aquifers at three of the sampling locations that matched the data from nearby monitoring wells.

The research has been published in the journal Water Resources Research and publicised in a press release to the Stanford News Service. Researchers told the Stanford News Service that the technique could revolutionise management of groundwater resources. “If we can get this working in between wells, we can measure groundwater levels across vast areas without using lots of on-the-ground monitors,” said lead author Jessica Reeves. The scientists hope that, eventually, the groundwater data could measure seasonal changes in groundwater levels, which would allow local districts to determine levels for sustainable water use.

See a previous item for news of the launch of Copernicus, Europe’s environmental satellite.

Notes

Water Resources Research – Abstract: “Estimating temporal changes in hydraulic head using InSAR data in the San Luis Valley, Colorado”.

Stanford Press Release: “Stanford breakthrough provides picture of underground water”.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Hubble Space Telescope and Earth Limb. From NASA on The Commons.

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Contaminated Land – Legislation News

European Commission withdraws Soil Framework Directive and Northern Ireland Executive consults on planning reform

June 26th 2014

The EC has withdrawn its proposals for a Soil Framework Directive following several unsuccessful attempts to reach an approval by all member states. The Soil Framework Directive would have established a comprehensive set of rules for all member states on contaminated land investigation, remediation and soil protection. The EC has said that the proposal was first discussed by the European Parliament and two committees in 2007 but, in Council, “the proposal was repeatedly discussed but always ran into a blocking minority.”

Following the announcement of its withdrawal, the EC issued a statement on 10th June, which said: “The continued unsustainable use of soils is compromising the Union’s domestic and international biodiversity and climate change objectives. For all these reasons, the Commission adopted a Soil Thematic Strategy on 22 September 2006 with the objective to protect soils across the EU. While the Commission in May 2014 decided to withdraw the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive, the Seventh Environment Action Programme, which entered into force on 17 January 2014, recognises that soil degradation is a serious challenge. It provides that by 2020 land is managed sustainably in the Union, soil is adequately protected and the remediation of contaminated sites is well underway, and commits the EU and its Member States to increasing efforts to reduce soil erosion and increase soil organic matter and to remediate contaminated sites.”

The withdrawal has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union and by a spokesperson from Defra, who said the proposal would have created an unnecessary regulatory burden and imposed significant costs on business. However, the move has been criticised by environmental lobbyists, including the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of more than 140 environmental organisations from across the EU. For further information on the responses to the withdrawal, see a previous news item “What happened to the Soil Framework Directive?”.

Northern Ireland – Contaminated Land Issues

The EC statement points out that only a few member states have specific legislation on soil protection. That disparity is also reflected in the legislation of the UK, where devolved government means that contaminated land may receive a different treatment according to whether the relevant local authority is based in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive is currently holding a consultation on the planning functions local authorities will assume next year. Brownfield Briefing has pointed out that contaminated land receives just one mention in the document put out for consultation. The one mention defines the circumstances when local authorities have a duty to consult the DoE(NI) on contaminated land issues. Those circumstances are limited to situations where the land in question is also polluting, or likely to pollute, the water environment, which does not address other potential risks to human health caused by soil contamination or ground gas, for instance.

The consultation closes on the 20th August. For further details of the consultation, see the GOV.UK website at “Consultation Paper on Planning Reform and Transfer to Local Government”.

Flood Risk Management – Too much emphasis on dredging, says CIWEM

National Flood Forum and CIWEM both call for a balanced approach to flood risk management

June 25th 2014

CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) has renewed its call for a balanced approach to flood risk management, following the publication last week of the Winter Floods report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report has been criticised by Alastair Chisholm, CIWEM’s policy manager, for its emphasis on dredging as an effective and widely applicable solution to flood risk management whilst not giving adequate recognition to other strategies such as the catchment-based approach.

In a report published earlier this year [1], CIWEM examines the role that dredging plays in water management and explains where dredging is an effective and appropriate measure and the circumstances in which its deployment will be far less effective. The common assumption is that dredging will reduce flood risk by speeding up the flow of flood water. However, evidence shows that in some situations dredging can increase the risk of flooding and can also cause ecological damage. CIWEM advocates a range of approaches to tackle flood risk, including slowing water down in upper catchments to reduce the height and therefore impact of flood peaks.

The Winter Floods report has been given a qualified welcome by Paul Cobbing, Chief Executive of the National Flood Forum, who said that the report only tackles part of the issue and that all Government departments should do more to reduce flood risk. He argues that Government should deliver an integrated people-centred flood risk management policy, and calls for a number of measures to be implemented, including the implementation of Sustainable Urban Drainage Schemes (SuDS) on new developments to reduce run-off, and the active promotion of the full range of flood risk management approaches through all departments, including managing catchments, supporting and empowering community initiatives and maintaining rivers and ditches.

See a previous news item for details of the ‘Winter Floods 2013-14′ report, published last week by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Notes

[1] CIWEM’s report Floods and Dredging – a reality check was published in February 2014. It emphasises the need for a considered approach to dredging and flood risk management, “based on sound evidence and expert assessment, and utilising a wide range of measures which should be deployed where they can deliver most benefit.”

More details of the Government’s brownfield plans announced

£5 million fund to support the first wave of local development orders

June 24th 2014

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has provided more information on the Government’s brownfield plans in a written statement to the House of Commons last week. As reported in Hansard, he said: “Councils will play a critical role in bringing forward suitable unused and previously developed land. They will consult on and put in place local development orders, which are a flexible, proactive way to provide outline planning permission for the scale and type of housing that can be built on sites.”

The Government’s aim, he continued, is to see planning permission in place for up to 200,000 homes on suitable brownfield sites. He also said that the Government will be providing a £5 million fund, to be launched before the summer, to support the first wave of new local development orders. “We will also be providing,” he continued, “a set of local development order ‘templates’ for smaller brownfield sites, and will consult on other measures to underpin this programme later in the year.” The drive for planning permissions will retain key safeguards, he added, and councils will need to take account of the views of local people when preparing an order, as well as environmental issues like minimising flood risk.

With regard to London, the Mayor will be given new powers to drive forward local development orders. “In addition,” he said, “20 new housing zones on this brownfield land in London will benefit from £400 million funding from the Government and the Greater London Authority. A further 10 zones outside London will be supported by an additional £200 million of Government funding for remediation and infrastructure to deliver new housing development. The Government funding will be in the form of recoverable investment.” A bidding prospectus for London has been published by the Mayor, he added, and “the Government will publish a prospectus inviting bids for housing zones in the rest of England shortly.” He also announced a further £150 million loan fund to support “the regeneration of some of the country’s most deprived social housing estates.”

His statement concludes with a reiteration of the Chancellor’s emphasis on brownfield development, as reported in a previous item. “These measures,” he said, “taken together with our existing policies and initiatives, will remove obstacles to developing suitable brownfield sites, ensuring that we focus on building the new homes we need while protecting the green spaces we all value.”

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Hardstanding near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk © Copyright Adrian S Pye and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

What happened to the Soil Framework Directive?

EC drops Soil Framework Directive, but Action Programme commits member states to increase efforts to remediate contaminated sites

June 23rd 2014

The European Commission recently announced that it is withdrawing its proposals for a Soil Framework Directive, which would have established a comprehensive set of rules for all member states on soil protection, contaminated land investigation and remediation. The proposal was first discussed in 2007 but some member states, including the UK, have consistently refused to support it.

According to Edie (the Environmental Data Interactive Exchange), the EC has been considering its withdrawal for some time. A Defra spokesperson is reported to have said: “We support the protection of Europe’s soils and already have policies in place for the sustainable management of soils in England. However, the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive would have imposed significant regulatory burdens and costs on businesses – including the farming community.”

David Rudland, Chair of the Land Quality Committee of Environmental Protection UK, also commented on the regulatory burden and the potential cost, though he also said that the likely obligation on the UK to provide far more funding to the EU for contaminated land investigation and remediation than it currently does for the UK might have had the positive effect of “pushing contaminated land back up the priority list once again.”

The withdrawal of the Directive was criticised by the the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of more than 140 environmental organisations from all EU member states. An EEB statement, reported by Edie, said that the withdrawal “reveals a disturbing lack of vision and understanding of the importance of European soils, which poses a direct threat to our food security and limits our ability to tackle climate change and prevent the loss of biodiversity.”

The withdrawal has also drawn a critique from environmentalist George Monbiot, who blames the farming lobby for its demise.

In a statement published earlier this month, the EC said: “While the Commission in May 2014 decided to withdraw the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive, the Seventh Environment Action Programme, which entered into force on 17 January 2014, recognises that soil degradation is a serious challenge. It provides that by 2020 land is managed sustainably in the Union, soil is adequately protected and the remediation of contaminated sites is well underway, and commits the EU and its Member States to increasing efforts to reduce soil erosion and increase soil organic matter and to remediate contaminated sites.”

Winter Floods 2013-14 – Parliament report highlights the need for SuDS

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called for swift implementation of SuDs provisions

June 22nd 2014

The UK Parliament has published a Commons Library Standard Note together with a 30-page report on the floods of 2013-2014. The Standard Note is a briefing document that sets out the context of the report. It includes a summary of the flooding that occurred between December 2013 and February 2014 in the UK and an account of the government’s response, with special attention to those areas particularly affected (Somerset, Dawlish and the South-West, and the Thames Valley). Further sections include an account of government support for affected households and businesses, a section on managing flood risk, and a section on flood funding.

On managing flood risk, the Standard Note includes a section on surface water flooding and Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS). It points to the Environment Agency’s estimate in 2009 that 3.8 million properties are at risk of surface water flooding, including 1 million that are also at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. The Note states that: “The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 contains provisions relating to sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and ending the automatic right to connect to public sewers in England and Wales. The provisions would require developers of property to construct SuDS before carrying out any new construction work.”

However, the secondary legislation implementing these provisions has not been brought forward. Implementation was initially planned for 1 October 2012 but is still the subject of delays. The Standard Note states that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called for swift implementation of SuDs provisions, whilst the Government has cited disagreements over technical standards and who pays for maintenance as causing delays in the implementation of the rules.

The Standard Note can be downloaded as a PDF from the Parliament website at “Winter Floods 2013/14”.

For the full report, see the Parliament website at “Winter floods – protection must take priority over cost-cutting – News from Parliament – UK Parliament”.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Permeable paving surrounding a new SUDS pond, near Renton, West Dunbartonshire © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. “The pond is out of shot to the left in this photo.”

Winter Floods – UK Parliament publishes report

Funding for maintenance at a “bare minimum”, says the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

June 19th 2014

The UK Parliament has published a report this week on the floods that occurred between December 2013 and February 2014 in the UK. A House of Commons Library Standard Note (SN/SC/06809), published on the same day, sets out the context of the report.

Context: Standard Note SN/SC/06809

The Standard Note includes a summary of the extent of the flooding and an account of the government’s response, focusing on those areas particularly affected such as Somerset, Dawlish and the South-West, and the Thames Valley. Further sections include an account of government support for affected households and businesses, a section on managing flood risk, and a section on flood funding. On managing flood risk, the Standard Note includes sections on the responsibilities of the various agencies, a section on dredging, a section on alternative flood management strategies, and a section on surface water flooding and Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS).

The Standard Note points to the Environment Agency’s estimate in 2009 that 3.8 million properties are at risk of surface water flooding, including 1 million that are also at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. It cites the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 which contains provisions relating to sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and ending the automatic right to connect to public sewers in England and Wales. The provisions would require developers of property to construct SuDS before carrying out any new construction work. However, the secondary legislation implementing these provisions has not been brought forward. Implementation was initially planned for 1 October 2012 but has been subject to a series of delays. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called for swift implementation of SuDs provisions, whilst the Government has cited disagreements over technical standards and who pays for maintenance as causing delays in the implementation of the rules.

Standard Note SN/SC/06809 can be downloaded as a PDF from the Parliament website at “Winter Floods 2013/14”.

The Report: “Winter floods 2013-14” (HC240)

The report on the winter floods has been published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and includes sections on the flood relief effort, maintenance responsibilities and priorities, and government funding. The account of flood risk management, included in the Standard Note, is omitted from the report.

In its conclusions, the report states that funding for maintenance is at a “bare minimum” and recommends “that Defra increase revenue funding to ensure that there is sufficient investment in maintenance work, including conveyance and dredging. We urge Defra to immediately draw up fully funded plans to address the backlog of appropriate and necessary maintenance work.” The Committee also warns that, in the light of reduced funding to the Environment Agency, “frontline services in flood and coastal risk management must not be reduced.” The Standard Note includes further information on the question of how much funding is needed, summarising warnings by the Committee on Climate Change issued in February 2014 that “even with the new money announced by the Prime Minister, planned spending was not sufficient to address long term flood risk” (SN/SC/06809, p.27).

For a synopsis of the report, see the Parliament website at “Winter floods – protection must take priority over cost-cutting – News from Parliament – UK Parliament”.

The full report was published on June 17th 2014 and can be downloaded as a PDF from the Parliament website at “Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee – Winter floods 2013-14”.