Dredging ‘top of the list’ for Somerset levels

Pleas for river-dredging by residents of the flooded Somerset Levels are finally being heard and endorsed by drainage experts and politicians, but it’s come too late after the wettest January for a century. The area, which was badly flooded last year as well, has been submerged since Christmas; main roads are closed families are marooned, farmland is ruined, businesses are stalling, power and sanitation have failed and houses are sloshing with filthy water. Local MP Ian Liddell-Granger has told the Environment Agency (EA) to stop ‘mucking around’.

Dredging (removing silt to widen and deepen the river) is controversial: conservation groups and fishermen oppose it on grounds of ecological damage, and because it causes rivers to flow faster and flood further downstream (Dame Helen Ghosh interview Country Life February 5, page 34). However, Jean Venables, chief executive of the Association of Drainage Authorities, said the EA had presided over a ‘20-year backlog of inactivity’ on de-silting on the Levels. Reportedly, one of the reasons the EA halted dredging on the Parrett last autumn was the discovery of water voles.

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Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, given a rough ride by frustrated locals last week (Agromenes, Country Life February 5 page 33), agrees with them that national criteria on disallowing dredging is ‘not appropriate’ to this part of England, where an artificial system created in Charles l’s time is largely below sea level and suffers tidal surges from the Severn Estuary.

The Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium has produced a 10-point plan to reduce flood risk. Dredging is top of the list, but it also suggests a tidal sluice downstream of Bridgewater to reduce tidal influence and slow the silting process, plus support for farmers to adapt and even for the most vulnerable households to be relocated. ‘Dredging is at the heart of the plan but, as the environmental organisations have been saying, it’s not the whole answer,’ comments chairman Peter Maltby.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is working with eight Norfolk farmers on a project to ‘rewild’ the Nar, suggests that farmers’ subsidies should be dependent on their willingness to allow small floods on their land to avoid crisis situations.

Unsurprisingly, the NFU is not in favour of this plan, but says it would welcome environmental-stewardship options that help farmers to use ‘natural processes’ to control water flow and, where appropriate, store it. A spokesman says: ‘Although we agree that “slowing the flow” [techniques] should have an important role to play in reducing flood risk, they are not a panacea. Our approach to fluvial flooding must be balanced, looking at river systems as a whole, including de-silting and vegetation management.’

John Austen, an estate manager involved in the WWF project, is in favour of ‘lazy’ rivers. ‘What’s needed is whole river systems-holding the water at various stages all along a river. A lot of farmers who are riparian owners have floodplain areas.

Why not start off with voluntary measures and a little incentive to encourage them to flood some of their land? That would be common sense and unemotional. If you ploughed it up and used it as arable land, it wouldn’t be very good anyway, so why can’t the Government pay to get it back?’ Mr Austen, chairman of the King’s Lynn Internal Drainage Board, continues: ‘The difficulty with farmers is that how on earth do you get all of them to do the same dredging all the way along the river? It would be chaos, because some would co-operate and others wouldn’t. We’ve got to try to introduce a whole catchment approach.’

To make a donation to the Royal Bath & West Society’s relief fund, telephone 01749 822200 or visit www.justgiving.com/Somerset-Levels-Relief-Fund.

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