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Catchment management focus needed in Somerset Levels, says environment boss

Dredging will not stop flooding on the Somerset Levels and a more comprehensive plan to manage land higher up the catchment would be more effective, Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith said last week.

Smith said that the much called for dredging of the rivers near the Levels, while now underway, would only form a “very small part” of the answer to the problem of flooding.

“Dredging is only a very small part of any comprehensive answer to the problem of flooding in the Somerset Levels,” said Smith. “It won’t stop the flooding from happening, it should help us to get the water away a bit more quickly once it’s there. But it is only a part of what has to be a much more comprehensive solution.”

A major dredging operation got underway at the end of last month on a 200m stretch of the River Parrett ahead of dredging along an 8km stretch of river near where the Tone and Parrett meet at Burrowbridge. The multi-million pound dredging plan was a direct response to the rising public call for action in the Levels.

But NCE revealed in February that ministers failed to consult the Agency before making the decision to press ahead with its dredging plan.

Increasing resilience via other means needed to be given more attention, he added. “One of the key issues, one of the absolutely key issues in the Somerset Levels is land management higher up the catchment,” said Smith. “It’s very important that plan continues to focus on that as well as some of the easier issues like dredging.

“Increasing resilience has to be at the heart of what we do. We also need to develop a greater community awareness and preparedness in advance so that there is more resilience in place for when these events happen. One of the key things is where there was already preparedness and knowledge, with local groups ready to take part, the response to floods tended to be better than it was elsewhere.”

Committee on Climate Change head of adaptation Daniel Johns said that communities must be forced to face up to difficult decisions when living near wetlands.

“The situation is there on the Somerset Levels because of a reason, and it’s largely a manmade problem,” said Johns. “But it’s a wetland landscape. It’s become dredged and drained over the course of centuries. Developers have encroached on the plains. We mustn’t allow social justice to prevent honest open discussions about the situations that people face.”

Instead, Johns said experts must have courage to provide inhabitants with information so they can make choices. Allowing people to return to business as usual and assume it won’t happen again would be the opposite of adaptation, he said.

“We need to take longer term strategic decisions about whether or not particular parts of the country can carry on as they have done in the recent past,” Johns added.

Smith and Johns were speaking at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management annual conference. In addition to community awareness, Smith said one of the major lessons learned from the winter floods was the benefit of the military assistance.

“The use of the army and the armed services was unique in this recent event,” he said. “We learned a lot and gained a lot from that involvement and I hope that that will be able to be built on in future events.” 

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