Higher defences will not be enough on their own to deal with flooding and people and communities should be helped to become more resilient when homes and businesses are inundated, the Environment Agency's chief executive said.
Sir James Bevan defended the EA's handling of the crisis following criticism of chairman Sir Philip Dilley's family holiday in Barbados at a time when parts of northern England were under water.
He insisted there was "no bar at all" on dredging following claims from Cumbrian residents who complained about a lack of action to clear silt from riverbeds.
"If we have to choose between people and wildlife, people will always come first," he said, and insisted about £20 million had been spent on dredging in two years.
"Where it does make a difference we will do that," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"But I do think we do need to think about how we react to these really extreme weather events that we have had. What everybody has said to me in the places I have visited up and down the country is that something has changed and that they have never seen anything like this and we need to think about what that means.
"Partly it will mean stronger flood defences but I don't think the solution is just to build up flood defences higher.
"Partly it will mean thinking much more broadly about how we manage river catchments, so water doesn't come straight down from the sky and straight into the rivers, so that we can slow the flow.
"I also think it is going to mean ... it's not just about better protection for people from floods, though that's a key part of it, it's about helping people and communities be more resilient when flooding actually happens."
Sir Philip came under fire after it emerged he was in the Caribbean on a family Christmas break after reporters were told he was at home with his family.
Sir James said: "He was at home with his family, who are from Barbados. He visited Cumbria on December 14, he came back on December 30 and went straight up to visit the North and that was the right thing to do.
"The person who is in charge of leading the Environment Agency's response to the floods crisis is me. Sir Philip Dilley's job is to hold me to account, he is doing that."
He brushed off questions from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn about 10 high-volume pumps which were not deployed to deal with the crisis, insisting they were designed specifically to tackle flooding on the Somerset Levels.
"I think I would have been rightly criticised if, having had all the pumping equipment that we need up north - which we do - I had moved pumps away from Somerset which are there to protect the people of the Somerset Levels," he said.