Floods on the Somerset Levels

Blog posts, February 8 2014

Floods below Tor 2014
floods below tor 2012

Land between the river Brue and Wearyall Hill in February 2014 (left), and in November 2012 (right).

Just south of Glastonbury, between Wearyall Hill and the river Brue, there’s a big field that floods for a while nearly every winter. The river Brue at this point is higher than the adjacent land, with built-up banks. In previous years I have seen water cascading over the bank and down into the field below.

But this year, with more rainfall than ever, it isn’t flooded. Why not? Somebody said ‘They must have dredged the rhynes.’ He must have been joking. The rhynes, which are the capillaries of the drainage system on the Levels, run along the sides of fields and can be cleared by the farmer with a JCB, which happens regularly. It makes no difference to flooding in this field, which is caused by the river over-flowing.

What I’ve heard is that the Environment Agency and the local Drainage Boards can more or less choose where will flood. There are so many pumps on the Somerset Levels, combined with a comprehensive system of sluices and flood gates, that under ‘normal’ conditions they can more or less shift the water around according to plan.

The Levels are of course land that has been drained – it used to be marshland, before that sea. Somewhere has to flood, because there’s too much water for the rivers to take it all to the sea fast enough; so this field outside Glastonbury is one of the handy places to dump it.

I don’t know why it hasn’t happened this year, but the truth is that all this part of Somerset, north of Street Hill and the Poldens, is a lot less flooded than last year, or other recent years.

In amongst all the ‘more dredging’ statements from David Cameron, declarations of emergency from Somerset County Council, visits from Prince Charles, calls to bring in the army, and TV pictures of more and more pumping which – so far as I can tell – just takes water off the fields into the river so that it will then overflow into someone else’s fields further downstream, there’s one thing that goes firmly and deliberately unnoticed: statements from the Environment Agency about what they are actually doing.

They are bleating as loudly as they can; but their carefully managed systems are being thoroughly upset – both by the extreme weather, and by knee-jerk directives from the government. One particular statement did slip through onto Radio 4:

“It’s a choice between flooding the countryside, or flooding the towns.” At some point, in other words, someone had to make a decision as to whether to flood the area around Burrowbridge, or to flood Taunton.

The area that is now flooded is close to sea level. It must be heart-breaking for farmers to see their farms inundated as they have been, but we do need some perspective here. The reality is that this kind of ‘extreme weather event’ is likely to happen more often in the future, whilst the resources needed to sustain such marginal areas in the face of such an overwhelming encroachment of the elements are bound to be limited.

The Somerset Levels used to consist of peat bogs and marshes, where people fished for barrel-loads of eels, grew withies for basket-making and reeds for thatching, and where water-birds lived by the thousand. Continual pumping to keep the water table artificially low for the sake of dairy farming has played havoc with the wetland wildlife. A Strategy Review carried out by the Environment Agency in 1998 was an attempt to arrive at a compromise between farmers and conservationists, that actually satisfied no-one. It was presumably after this review that dredging of the rivers was curtailed.

It’s quite likely, if this land is to remain in use for dairy farming under conditions of climate change, that the rivers Parret and Tone do need to be regularly dredged once again – though this brings with it its own dangers. And when I hear David Cameron assuring us that this is only sensible and the change of policy during the previous government’s watch was “wrong,” there’s just one image that comes to my mind:

King Canute.

Floods on the Somerset Levels & Victor Schauberger

It’s not the river Brue, nor the part of the Levels visible from the Tor, that has been in the news. It’s the river Tone and the river Parret, further south nearer to Taunton. And, as even the Prime Minister has stated, the basic reason is to do with climate change. (At least that’s what he said at first. Later it was ‘climate change, and the lack of dredging’).

But I think it’s worth remembering what Victor Schauberger said, that straightening out rivers means that they can’t carry so much solid matter away, so they become more prone to silting up and flooding.

Schauberger was an Austrian scientist and forester between the wars, and he took a particular interest in rivers and water flow. Flowform arrangements such as the one at Chalice Well are based partly on his thinking:

‘Naturally flowing water forms in-winding, longitudinal, clockwise-anti-clockwise alternating spiral vortices down the central axis of the current, which constantly cool and re-cool the water, maintaining it at a healthy temperature and leading to a faster, more laminar, spiral flow.’

According to my dictionary the word ‘laminar’ has to do with thin layers (as in lamination), and a ‘laminar flow’ means ‘a viscous flow, a fluid flow in which the particles move smoothly without turbulence.’

Schauberger tried to explain all this to Adolf Hitler when he wrote to the German fuehrer in the 1930s, complaining about the dangers involved in straightening out sections of the river Rhine. Hitler took no notice, though the reasoning isn’t all so esoteric. As George Mombiot said in his Guardian article last month:

‘Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers … They increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster … The result, as authorities all over the world now recognise, was catastrophic. In many countries, chastened engineers are now putting snags back into the rivers, reconnecting them to uninhabited land that they can safely flood and allowing them to braid and twist and form oxbow lakes. These features catch the sediment and the tree trunks and rocks which otherwise pile up on urban bridges.’

So if they go dredging like they say they will, next year it may not be Burrowbridge and Muchelney; next year it might be Taunton.