FARMERS IN Somerset were this week considering whether to sue the Environment Agency for failing to maintain local flood defences and allowing their land to flood.
Farmers living on the Somerset moors near Taunton are taking legal advice over whether they have a case against the Agency which they claim has failed to maintain pumps and embankments on the rivers Parrett and Tone.
The Agency has dismissed their claims, arguing that recent severe flooding has been caused by unexpectedly heavy rainfall.
'What has changed is the pattern of weather and the number of extreme rainfall events, ' said the Agency's North Wessex flood defence manager Richard Simons.
This has led to the rivers regularly flooding onto the land, preventing farmers from grazing their cattle, which in turn, has meant they have had to buy more feed or rent extra land.
The farmers have hired local National Farmers Union (NFU) solicitor Tim Russ, of Clarke Wilmott & Clarke, to examine whether the Agency has infringed their human rights by allowing flooding to take place. If he thinks the farmers have a case, they could sue for compensation.
'By flooding people without compensation you may be infringing on the right of property, ' he said.
Russ explained that local farmers using the 64,000 hectare Somerset Levels and moors have come to expect mild flooding on their land, due to its historical status as a wetland and designation as an special site of scientific interest.
Mild flooding is welcomed, he added, because it deposits alluvium on the land which helps grasses grow as cattle fodder.
Recently, however, the Tone and Parrett floods have been inundating land to greater depths and for longer, and farmers claim this is due to the poor state of flood control embankments and pumps.
Flooding has, in turn, overwhelmed the local Internal Drainage Board (IDB) system of ditches and drains. The farmers pay the IDB a levy for drainage upkeep.
Russ has hired Parsons Brinckerhoff to investigate the strength of the case and study the causes and effects of recent flooding on the moors.
Parsons Brinckerhoff water engineer Peter Wade said he has been investigating the state of the defences and the potential effects of climate change.
The Agency said that its flood defence maintenance priorities had been challenged several times over the years, but that few claims had come to fruition.
Simons said that the Agency had been working closely with local authorities, environmental groups and farmers to work out the best water management strategy for the area. He added that the Agency would be spending between £5M and £6M on flood defence work in the Parrett and Tone catchment in the financial year starting in April.
INFOPLUS www. somerset. gov. uk/levels/ www. environment-agency. gov. uk