Lessons must be learned from Levels flooding
This summer's flooding has cost farmers on the Somerset Levels at least £2 million in lost grassland production and environmental damage, according to an independent report commissioned by the Somerset Drainage Boards.
It is probably even more than that, given that this report only considered damage arising from the first major flood, in May, and is focused on the worst-affected farms in Currymoor and Haymoor. It doesn't include the three subsequent flood events, or the damage suffered by farmers in the Yeo Valley and the Brue Valley. Add that lot in, and we are probably looking at getting on for double the headline figure.
That the flooding was so widespread and severe is not in itself surprising, given the intensity of the rainfall, not only in April but again in late June, mid-July and even as recently as last week. In early May, the River Tone was carrying more water through Taunton than at the height of the Christmas 2000 flood, when Bridgwater only narrowly escaped inundation.
But the question which all the local farmers are asking is: would the flooding have been as deep and long-lasting, had the channels of the Tone and the Parrett been kept clear by dredging, rather than being allowed to become partially choked by deposits of silt? They quote figures which suggest that the carrying capacity of the river Tone through Currymoor has fallen to just 40 per cent of what it was in 1960. The difference is only slightly less than the volume of water which spills into the moor at the height of a big flood.
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The Environment Agency has commissioned a full-scale review of what took place, which is due to report later this month, with Regional Flood Defence Committee chairman, Alan Lovell, insisting that: "lessons will be learned" and that "nothing is impossible" in the way of options to avoid a repeat. And whatever the long-term changes to flood defence and water management strategies, the crisis does seem to have galvanised the EA in coping with the aftermath, not least in the furious activity which has been evident in recent weeks in oxygenating the last foot or so of flood water, so it that it can be pumped back into the rivers without killing the fish.
The situation has also served to highlight the wider predicament of the Somerset Levels, which needs greater investment than ever to preserve the delicate balance between farming and wildlife, but which is being increasingly starved of resources, for managing the land as well as the water. But there is some encouraging news on that score. Farming and conservation interests are coming together to map out a shared vision for the future of the area, with the endorsement of the Defra Minister with responsibility for the natural environment, Richard Benyon. Whether the Minister's evident concern for what is happening on the Levels will be translated into the hard cash needed to prevent the deterioration of flood defences and the drift away from meaningful conservation management remains to be seen. But at least this dreadful summer has served to demonstrate that the benign neglect so attractive to some conservationists is a recipe for disaster, and not just for farming but for the environment as well. It was enlightened intervention in natural processes which created the unique landscape and wildlife of the Somerset Levels in the first place, and it will require continuing enlightened intervention to maintain it. Learning that lesson won't put right the devastation on Currymoor – that will take time, money and a lot of hard work – but it just might make it less likely that it happens again.