Farming News - Flooded area contested by two sides of Somerset dredging debate

Flooded area contested by two sides of Somerset dredging debate

29 Jan 2014
Frontdesk / Machinery


Around 11,500 hectares (28,420 acres) of the Somerset Levels are currently inundated by about 65 million cubic metres of water according to the NFU.


Flooding on the Somerset Levels

The NFU has welcomed an announcement by the Environment Secretary that a plan to alleviate flooding on the Somerset Levels will be drawn up within six weeks, "almost certainly" including a project to clear accumulated silt from the Parrett and Tone rivers.


NFU Deputy President Meurig Raymond said, "Our thoughts are with all those affected by the recent floods, and especially those farmers in Somerset who have seen their land, businesses and homes underwater for weeks on end."


"Everyone recognises that the Levels are supposed to flood, but the water must be able to recede. Clearly the capacity and conveyance of the Rivers Parrett and Tone is limiting that and it is encouraging to hear that the Secretary of State accept this."


Mr Raymond, a contender for the union presidency in upcoming elections, continued, "While dredging is not the only action needed it would have the greatest benefit in alleviating the amount of flooding and help speed up recovery efforts following future events. Crucially, it would build confidence that the government is listening and provide welcome relief to those who have been flooded."


6500 hectares flooded say EA.

However, the Environment Agency claims that the flooding on the Somerset Levels is the result of prolonged and persistent rainfall, with the area seeing more than twice the average rainfall for this time of year. A spokesperson for the Agency told Farming Online this morning that that up to 40 properties and 65 square kilometres (6,500 hectares) of land have flooded. The Levels occupy an area of about 650 km2. Flood defences have protected over 200 square kilometres of land and 3,500 properties, including in the towns of Langport, Martock, Ilchester and Ham, according to EA.


Though an NFU spokesperson said the union's 11,500 ha figure came from the Environment Agency – but admitted it was "a few weeks old" – a spokesperson for EA in the South West said the much smaller figure of 6,500 ha represented land affected at the height of the floods, which began before Christmas in many areas of the Levels.


The Environment Agency spokesperson said officials are doing everything they can to pump water off the Somerset Levels as quickly as river and tide levels allow. Teams have been working around the clock since Christmas and extra manpower and pumping equipment has been brought in from around the country, they said. Sixty-five pumps are now in operation in the area, making the current remedial effort the single largest pumping operation ever undertaken in Somerset.


Environment Agency chair Lord Smith told the BBC Today programme on Tuesday that dredging "is not the comprehensive answer".


The role of dredging


Nationally, the Environment Agency spent £45 million in the last financial year on improving rivers, including dredging and weed clearance. In Somerset, de-silting work was last carried out on pinch points on the Parrett and Tone rivers in November.


Although the Agency has taken much of the flak so far this week, The Government has also come under fire for mercilessly slashing river maintenance budgets since coming to power in 2010. The budget has been halved since the Coalition took power, reducing river maintenance funds from £108 million in 2010-11 to £70 million this year and a projected £60m in 2015.


Whilst dredging would provide some benefit to managing future flood risk on the Somerset Levels and Moors, it is not always the best long-term or economic solution compared with other flood risk measures such as building walls or providing storage upstream.


The Environment Agency, which has been targeted by local MPs and Councillors, as well as farm groups, maintains that increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would not have prevented the recent widespread flooding because of the sheer volume of rainfall. On tidal stretches of rivers, silt immediately begins to return to the river following dredging and a fifth of the area in question is below sea level. Where dredging increases river flows, it can also make flooding worse downstream.


EA has promised to form a long term plan, working with Government, local councilors and other stakeholders to tackle flood risk on the Somerset Moors and Levels.


Meanwhile, environmentalists and wildlife groups have also disputed the value of dredging in areas such as Somerset. In a joint statement, RSPB and the Somerset Wildlife Trust expressed concern over calls by MPs and others in Somerset for more dredging of watercourses. The two wildlife groups questioned the role of dredging as a solution to the situation on the levels. They expressed concern at dreding "being seen as the best or only solution" to flooding and called on the government to create an "evidence-based, effective, and sustainable flood management strategy, fit for the 21st century."


RSPB spokesperson Mark Robins said, "Our concern comes from this dredge being seen as the best or only solution to give the extra protection to homes and critical infrastructure that is needed. These [dredging] proposals are based on a scheme design developed over half a century ago in the 1960s. Much has changed on the Levels since then, and the scheme as put forward by the Royal Bath &West Society and others is currently of real concern to [us]."


RSPB's Mr Robins added, "Recent floods provide a foretaste of things to come on the Levels, as extreme weather events become more frequent, and winters become wetter. A long term systematic shift to more resilience is vital for people and wildlife."


History of flooding on the Somerset Levels


Around 635 square kilometres of Somerset is below sea level. The recent widespread flooding of the Somerset Levels and Moors is just one in a long record of flood events.


In 1919 historical records show that 280 square kilometres of the Levels and Moors were flooded. This widespread flooding was before many of our flood defences and raised embankments were constructed. In comparison today only 65 square kilometers is flooded.


The ancient tidal marshes of Somerset were gradually reclaimed through the activities of the Abbots and Bishops as far back as 1,000 years ago.


The latest forecasts suggest that Somerset will face more heavy rain towards the end of the week. While the battle of wills between both sides of the dredging debate is ongoing, this news will be unwelcome for the area's long-suffering residents.


Paterson tests the water


Following his visit to the Somerset Levels on Monday, environment secretary Owen Paterson faced scathing criticism from farmers and locals who gathered to speak with the minister in the hope that he would announce immediate measures to tackle flooding. Instead, during his short visit – four weeks after the area's first floods took place – Mr Paterson spoke only with selected members of the press and local politicians and announced that a consultation would take place on flood management.


The embattled Defra secretary has also come under fire for denying that climate change has a part to play in the severe weather events that have led to an increase in flooding.


**Update 11/02/2014 - Neither Somerset Widlife Trust nor the RSPB reject dredging when conducted "at the right scale"**