The Draining of the Somerset Levels

Blog post, March 2 2014

I came to the conclusion that there is a lot of ill-informed nonsense being said about the Somerset Levels at the moment, so I decided to educate myself. I bought a copy of Michael Williams’ ‘The Draining of the Somerset Levels,’ which is the definitive book on the subject so far as I can tell. It is certainly very interesting.

It tells the story of centuries of relatively ineffective efforts to drain the Levels and to put an end to flooding. The ineffectiveness has been partly due to bureaucracy, partly due to conflicts of interest, and partly due to a belief that draining the Levels by means of gravitational flow is possible – which it isn’t – so that the only way to do it is bound to require modern pumping equipment.

The bureaucracy goes back to the medieval ‘Court of Sewers,’ but the problem essentially is that until the second world war there has never been a central authority able and willing to provide the finance and to make decisions which were not possible for locally-based authorities. In 1939, spurred on by the need to supply the new Ordnance Factory at Puriton with 4.5 million gallons of water a day for the production of high explosives, considerable progress was suddenly made. Since then, the maintenance of the Somerset Levels drainage system has remained the responsibility of central government.

The conflicts of interest have been between the needs of river transport (which requires reasonably deep water) and drainage (which means getting rid of water as efficiently as possible); between the rich (who have wanted to ‘improve’ the land, which really meant to improve their income from it) and the poor (whose rights of commonage on the moors – summer grazing, peat cutting etc – were gradually eroded by the enclosure and attempted drainage of the levels); between the peat lands (which are only much use for agriculture if drained completely) and the clay lands near the Somerset coast (where there was a need to retain water for irrigation in summer); between different areas of the Levels, which would often drain their land into each others’; between drainage and the construction of fishing weirs, mills and other such installations that would tend to restrict the river’s flow and encourage flooding; and more recently between farmers and conservationists. The issue is anything but simple.

And regarding gravity, which is how water normally drains off the land and ultimately into the sea: during times of flood the main river channels through the levels, for reasons that are part-natural and part-man-made, have water levels that are higher than the surrounding land; in  addition to which the coastal belt has a layer of peat that is over-laid with clay (alluvial deposits from ancient sea-flooding), so that the ground level is actually several feet higher than further inland. With the fall from, say, Bruton to Highbridge being only a few inches per mile anyway, ‘drainage’ per se is not a feasible method of flood prevention. Pumping began with steam power in the nineteenth century, and these days the whole system relies on sophisticated electrically-powered pumping stations which operate more or less the whole time.

After all this Williams, who was writing in 1970, finishes with a warning concerning “the ever-present prospect of the occurrence of a particularly unfavourable combination of high tides, adverse wind and barometric pressure conditions, and heavy and prolonged rainfall. This combination would make short work of man’s effort to control the adverse physical environment of the Levels.”

In the winter of 2013/14, this is precisely what has happened.

Reply: Jack Green 4/12/2019

“……In the winter of 2013/14, this is precisely what has happened….”

No it isn’t – not at all.

From 1996 onwards, the Environment Agency significantly stopped dredging. There were two reasons for this; firstly, EU regulation made the dumping of silt a troublesome and expensive business.

Secondly, the EU’s Habitats (1992) and Water Framework (2000) directives imposed a ‘hands off’ approach to water-course management. At the same time, they decided to increase ‘biodiversity’ particularly of birdlife.

The EU decided that they could control all outcomes and satisfy all ‘stakeholders’ – particularly since the greenies at the Met Office declared that there’d be no more wet winters.

The EA’s chief, Baroness Young, was previously chief of the RSPB and decided to create wetlands – her famous catchphrase was ‘Instant Wildlife: Just Add water’. She procured the purchase of Southmoor Lake near Burrowbridge and in 2010-11 it was deliberately flooded. The Parrett drainage board was leaned on by the Environment Agency to agree to help do it.

Burrowbridge is where the Parrett and Tone conjoin.

So, with little of no dredging from 1996, the EU directives saying ‘let rivers be’, the Met Office saying ‘don’t worry it won’t rain much’ and the decision to flood 2 sq. miles of farmland next to the confluence of two rivers in 2010-11……….

……..what do you think might’ve happened?

The rain that fell that winter was heavy, but not historically so. Had the Levels been managed – and maintained – properly as they had been until the 1990s, then this chaos would never have occurred.

If you disagree, consider this………with floods at their worst the government ordered an immediate emergency plan be drawn up. The floods began to subside around 20th March 2014, and on 31st March dredging began and went on until 31st October.

In January 2015, the Somerset River Authority was established to maintain tight control over the management of the Levels. The EA are involved but are effectively sidelined.

The 2014 Somerset Floods were caused by the utter arrogance and folly of humans:

> by the EU – imposing a common policy for the ‘(mis)management of nature’ for thousands of European rivers that are all different

> by the EA for refusing to assert that the Somerset Levels were VERY different and required to be considered a special case

> by the RSPB (none of whom lived in the area) for selfishly pushing their agenda to the great detriment of the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people…….and huge expense for the state

> by the EA, RSPB, WWF and Natural England for flooding Southmoor

> by the Met Office for predicting ‘dry winters due to climate change’, when they can only safely predict the weather for a fortnight

> by greenies everywhere for insisting that only ‘radical’ actions and policies can solve their issues. They refuse to compromise and settle for sensible measures that balance everybodies’ interests.

Reply: Bruce Garrard 4/12/2019

Thanks Jack for your detailed response, though there are rather a lot of factors that you seem to have ignored. In particular you have failed to mention that before the war – and the advent of the modern regime of continuous pumping – floods on the Levels such as those experienced in 2013/14 were regular occurrences.So-called ‘proper’ management of the rivers made no difference.

The Environment Agency had not been regularly dredging rivers for several reasons. One is that dredging disturbs habitat and is not good for wildlife – and the Agency does have a statutory duty to ‘further conservation in the exercise of any of its powers or duties’. Another is that dredging is expensive and, with budget restrictions, the clear priority is to protect urban areas from flooding – which sometimes will inevitably mean allowing farmland on floodplains to flood. And a third is that the basic result of dredging is to have water moving more quickly along river channels, which can relieve flooding where the dredging takes place but create it further downstream when the increased flow meets a ‘pinch point’ (such as in a town).

Dredging is a water management strategy to be used only with caution. Nevertheless EA was made the scapegoat in the affair. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary at the time, made the mistake of listening to his colleagues in EA and changing his own view of dredging; as a result he promptly lost his job, because dredging was the short-term and simplistic fix that had become a media sound-bite.

The rain that fell that winter was described as ‘record-breaking’ and ‘some of the worst storms experienced for decades’. What is this if not historical? In addition, progressive reduction in tree cover and modern farming methods that result in increasing soil compaction, have each made the soil less able to absorb water and flooding more likely.

The Somerset Rivers Authority was described to me by a local farmer as ‘Good committee men, though they know nothing about rivers’. Nevertheless they employ several Community Engagement Officers whose main job is to talk to communities about flood mitigation – which in itself shows that flooding is an on-going problem and is not solved by a quick fix.

I am not familiar with the details of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, though I do know that it is administered by local agencies – in this case the EA – which have local knowledge of the thousands of European rivers which are, as you say, all different. In this sense the Somerset Levels have been considered a special case, and I would recommend you to read some of the voluminous literature that EA have produced concerning the various different river catchments within the region.

The RSPB, initially by means of their 1991 report ‘An Internationally Important Wetland in Crisis’, has succeeded in generating an informed debate about wetland wildlife and rescuing many bird species from local extinction. Describing this as ‘selfishly pushing their own agenda’ really is over-simplifying the matter.

I do not know about the flooding of Southmoor Lake, though I do know that several areas of the lower Brue valley have been deliberately flooded in order to conserve wildlife, without any detrimental effect that I am aware of.

I do not remember the Met Office predicting ‘dry winters due to climate change’. In fact of course the opposite is true, which the Met Office would certainly agree with now, and the result is likely to be heavier rainfall along the ridge of hills including the Mendips – and therefore increased risk of flooding in the river catchments to their south and west.

‘Sensible measures that balance everybody’s interests’ are precisely what EA have always striven to achieve, and the result is that they are unable to satisfy anybody and therefore end up as everybody’s whipping boy. In 1998 the Agency complained of the lack of “a wide measure of agreement on the Agency’s role” and the need to “release resources from responding to conflicting pressures into meeting agreed objectives”. In other words they had been given an impossible job to do. Even today such a measure of agreement has not been achieved, and responsibility for this must lie with central government.

‘The utter arrogance and folly of humans’ is responsible for most of our widespread and increasing environmental problems. This no doubt includes the 2014 Somerset floods – which have since been exceeded in other parts of the country. Yet considering that such events were predicted right back in 1970 to be unavoidable for the Levels, it does seem somewhat harsh to blame them on organisations that have been doing their best to respond appropriately.