Engineers in uphill battle to pump away billions of gallons of water on Somerset Levels
As one of the biggest pumping operations ever staged in Britain continues, Environment Agency (EA) bosses are beginning to question if they could afford to clear water off the Somerset Levels on a regular basis if a wetter climate becomes the norm.
In November, the EA brought in huge mobile pumps and teams of workers from all over the country to add a further 50% capacity to the badly flooded area's existing pumping stations – and the figures behind the massive operation are staggering.
"Over the period we've been pumping, we've removed over five billion gallons of water," says the EA's Wessex area operations manager, Robbie Williams.
"Basically, we have moved a large lake. The water at Curry Moor alone weighs something like 11 million tonnes – that's billions of gallons.
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"There are 25 existing pumps on the Levels, and we brought in 21 mobile units which added 50 per cent to the capacity," said Mr Williams who gave the Western Morning News a tour of the operations yesterday. "Nationally, we have six large-capacity 24-inch pumps which move a tonne of water a second – and until recently we had all six here. We've still got five. We've also hired in a whole series of smaller pumps.
"The cost is difficult to calculate, because we'd be pumping anyway in a normal winter – but as well as the additional pumps, we've brought in over 30 people from all over the country and we're putting them up locally.
"So the bill is going to be hundreds of thousands of pounds. And you get to the point where you have to say – if we have to do this every year, can we afford it?
"One event doesn't mean it is going to become the norm," said Mr Williams. "But there has to be a debate on whether or not we can afford to do this. We have to start planning and thinking about if this sort of rainfall does happen more often.
"There is work being done to assess, strategically, what the Somerset Levels might look like in 20 or 30 years. We have to find out how the place could deal with this sort of weather so that the impact would be much less.
"This place requires man's intervention," Mr Williams explained. "If we didn't turn the pumps on, all the water we get on the moors in a summer like the last one would still be there in November, which is when we had the really bad rainfall. And if we hadn't pumped then, we'd probably have had 75 million tonnes out there. But there's only room for 25 million tonnes – and it would have been trying to escape somewhere."
But, as Mr Williams says, giant pumping operations are expensive. He calculates the EA must have spent approaching £250,000 on diesel alone to keep pumps in fuel – and many of them run on electricity.
So what can be done to plan for what climatologists believe might be a much wetter future?
"There has to be a way of trying to design the landscape in order to cope," Mr Williams replied as we looked out at the great sheets of water which still cover hundreds of acres around the villages of Burrowbridge and Athelney.
"I think everyone would agree we have to do it better than this, if it becomes the norm. Certain areas would perhaps be allowed to become much wetter – while you would target other areas to keep them dry.
"You can't make water to disappear, but you can move it around," said Mr Williams. "The more you are allowing nature to put water where it wants to put it, the better. The more you are trying to put it somewhere else, the more costly it is.
"You are, quite literally, fighting an uphill battle."
We stood at the EA's Curry Moor pumping station, where the huge old static pumps have been joined by several large mobile units. The noise was deafening and the very ground we stood on shook as the pumps continued, hour after hour.
"Fortunately the forecasts aren't too bad rain-wise," said Mr Williams when I asked when operations would eventually cease. "We've made huge progress – in the last nine days we've taken out half of the water on Curry Moor, for example. So we would be looking at getting there in the next two weeks.
"To put it into context – in 2000 when we had the same sort of water on the Levels the pumping took us three months – this time we've done it in one month. I think that is impressive." It is. It is also expensive.