The current floods are causing enormous distress to people living and working in communities such as Muchelney and Moorland, and have resulted in appalling damage to some homes and businesses. And being part of the Levels community ourselves, we share and understand their worries, their frustrations. It’s really tough at the moment.
Living in a major floodplain, generations of Somerset people have learned to adapt to the floods, but the scale of flooding over the last two years tells us we need to look urgently at how we manage water, and how we make ourselves resilient to climate change.
These floods warn us that we must face up to what’s coming – significant long term changes in rainfall patterns, including wetter winters and more frequent spring and summer downpours as well. These have implications for flood risk to our settlements, to how we farm upstream in the catchment and on the floodplain, and of course, to the Level’s wildlife habitats. So how should we best respond to increasing amounts of water on the floodplain?
There’s no magic wand to sort the problem. A range of measures is needed. The main rivers need to be kept working to convey floodwater out to sea as part of wider water management that slows water coming onto the floodplain, and spreads it more effectively once there. Dredging the tidal reaches of some key rivers can play a part, alongside other measures across the catchment.
And last weekend we offered our support to the Save the Levels Relief Fund appeal to raise money to dredge the River Tone from Hook Bridge to the confluence (3.3km) and the River Parrett from Burrowbridge to Northmoor pumping station (4km).
Naturally it is our explicit view that the proposed dredge must not lead to any adverse impacts on the internationally important wetlands. And of course it mustn't exacerbate the flood risk downstream, especially for the businesses and communities in Bridgwater. We also must bear in mind that dredging isn’t the answer everywhere across the UK where flood problems exist. But with this in mind we will work with the Save the Levels Relief Fund to produce a good plan that serves all interests.
We suggest that flood management on the Levels should be governed by five key principles:
1. Focus flood defence resources on protecting lives, homes, businesses (including farm businesses) and utilities. Invest in: better local flood defences for vulnerable rural properties, improvements to key roads making them less vulnerable to disruption, and more support in preparing Level’s communities for extreme events.
2. Slow the water flow upstream to reduce peak floods on the Levels. For example, upstream soils can be made less compact, natural habitats can be restored, more broadleaved trees can be planted and temporary flood storage created along drainage systems – in both upstream towns and the countryside. This has been effective elsewhere in the country, and needs to be used to help the Levels as well. (see here).
3. Use the existing water management infrastructure better by spreading flood water more effectively when it reaches the floodplain. Make better use of the Parrett Flood Relief Channel and the gravity floodplain across King’s Sedgemoor. Plan and enable land-use change to provide more space for water.
4. Build greater resilience in the way the floodplain is used. Incentivise the use of more flood-tolerant pastures, and encourage flood-sensitive crops such as silage and maize to be grown off the floodplain.
5. Maintain critical watercourses to ensure appropriate levels of drainage. This includes dredging at the right scale to keep water moving on the Levels, but in planning how and where to dredge, don’t damage the Level’s wildlife-rich wetlands.
There is nothing new in these calls - they have been made collectively by many local stakeholders, after all the big flood events in the last 15 years. Lack of leadership, for whatever reason has been the biggest barrier to achieving a fair transition to a more resilient floodplain that works for people, communities and nature.
Designing the best package of change - for a fair effective transition, that works for all interests in the Levels - is going to be a challenge.
We firmly believe that long term resilience in the Somerset Levels will happen with everyone pulling together. Different communities of interest will have their differences, but the one thing that binds us together is our desire for a secure future for this special place.
Now is the time to get this right, to show the leadership, to give people, communities, businesses and wildlife of the Somerset Levels a more secure future. Get the transition approach right, and nature will be a powerful ally.
The goal should be a fantastic landscape in which people can farm, nature can thrive, and communities can live and work safely.
The attached briefing has been produced by RSPB and Somerset Wildlife Trust and circulated to MP's and appropriate local authorities annd organisations today.