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Letters: Need for level debate over Somerset

You are right to ask for engineering judgement rather than political hysteria regarding the unprecedented flooding (Comment last week).

However, you seem to miss the way the Environment Agency has failed to explain its policies, especially to local people, both prior to and since the latest period of flooding.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 1 February the Agency’s spokesman seemed at one point to say that dredging would undermine bridges and yet no one was demanding rivers be made deeper than ever: only to put them back to how they were two decades ago.

The neglected plight of Boston should be highlighted. Being flooded with contaminated water for over a month, with little outside support while others try to protect Bridgwater, cannot be ignored either.

  • Jeffrey Smith (M), Baden Drive, Horley RH6 8SD

The Environment Agency is coming under a lot of flak and as ever there are doubtless things that could/should have been done.

But, brutal as it is to people in the Somerset Levels, with resources being finite, it is absolutely right to focus monies on protecting more densely populated areas.

I understand that the Agency is undertaking site investigation works in many of the highest risk areas detailed in your report.

Do something/anything, good-for-TV fixes like dredging are a good example of this country’s interminable short-termist instinct.

  • Ben Biggin, 153 Russell Road, Nottingham NG7 6GX

It is so rewarding to see Mark Hansford’s career with NCE as his old supervising civil engineer at Atkins but I have to take him to task. Of course “…river channels are too small to contain extreme floods, even after dredging…” but the key issue is being missed.

Restoring river and drainage channels to their optimum cross sectional and/or design areas will see attenuation of flows as they increase and mitigate the amount of floodwater inundation.

Using dredged material could have nutritional value on land in rural areas and/or raise bank levels to further mitigate floodwater inundation and/or create wildlife habitats on banks.

As an aside, having lived in Staines in Middlesex for 28 years, I cannot recall any maintenance dredging being carried out by the Environment Agency on the Thames or the Jubilee river - no wonder the Chertsey/Staines area again suffered this time. Just as well I retired to the hills of Wales.

  • Nigel Craddock (M),

I think you do the Somerset Levels an injustice. Agreed, we need engineering judgement; and that Boston is important; but you fail to register that the Somerset levels form an enormous part of the British dairy industry.

Last Thursday livestock, which was in danger of drowning, was taken away, most likely for slaughter. The next day a supermarket in Taunton received its milk supply from an alternative source.

The farming community in Somerset needs a quick fix to get back to work if this area is not to become a wasteland useless for farming.

I agree that dredging would have helped only marginally, but it might have been marginal enough to save some of yesterday’s exodus.

Politics or not, a quick fix is required now, just as much as a carefully judged long-term solution that may, at least in part, be a managed withdrawal of human activity from the area. It’s that serious.

  • Philip Worsfold (M),

You are right to point out that the flooding of the Somerset Levels is a largely a case of washland doing what it is supposed to do; and also that dredging of the rivers is not likely to provide a solution. The Environment Agency is absolutely right to prioritise property over farmland and for Prince Charles to describe the floods as “a tragedy” is to redefine the word rather than an accurate description.

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t issues to be addressed.

The Internal Drainage Board (IDB) report for the River Parrett devotes less than a page to the emergency plan for flooding and the Agency’s on the hoof responses suggest that, while it’s been tireless in its efforts, it was less than well prepared. One has to ask, why?

A short examination of the drainage systems reveals that most of the infrastructure, shared by the Agency and the IDB, is devoted to maintaining water levels rather than keeping them down. The sea outfalls are protected by tidal sluices which open and close and the only pumping station in the area appears to be designed to put water into the catchment rather than take it out.

Obviously, the main problem is lack of head, which is why they are called levels and dredging will not alleviate this when the tide is in. The solution for a large part of the area would appear to lie with the design and operation of the Kings Sedgemoor Drain where a high capacity lift station at Dunball could provide the required capacity and head to remove excess water without flooding Bridgwater. The provision of an equivalent system on the west side of the Parrett is less obvious and needs further consideration along with the river Tone catchment.

  • Peter Styles,

Hearing all these calls to dredge recently and reading Ian Liddell-Grainger’s column (Opinion, last week) reminds me of the law of logical argument: “Anything is possible, if you don’t know what you are talking about.”

  • Walter Scott (M),
  • Editor’s note: Many thanks for all your letters on this subject; keep them coming as we intend to print a specially-extended Letters section next week to fit them all in.


Storms show why engineers matter

How do we promote civil engineering? A question asked regularly in NCE, recently and in the past. Well the infrastructure problems caused by the recent bad weather are surely an ideal opportunity.

With the rail link to west Devon and Cornwall severed at Dawlish, the ICE should be proactive in showing how civil engineering can overcome the problems in providing an all-weather relief route.
Reinstatement of the old Southern Railway Route to Plymouth via Okehampton is the obvious and easiest candidate.

The missing 30km from Okehampton to Bere Alston is generally free of obstructions, most structures are extant, with sections already subject to statutory protection for future rail use.

With an estimated cost of £150M, the task will be significantly less complicated than the Borders Railway reinstatement, but needs to be completed in as short a timescale as possible.

There are obviously statutory procedures that cannot be avoided, but it is up to us to demonstrate to all stakeholders that we are there to make things happen.

Problems and issues are there to be overcome and with innovative methods of getting all stakeholders from government to contractor working together, this alternative route could be reinstated in 12 to 18 months.

If we did that then we would have something to be proud of and remind people why we have and need engineers.

  • Chris Duffell (M), Church Farm, Alsop en Le Dale, Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 1Q


Brain power over popularity

I have always believed that civil engineers are great at posing and then answering their own problems, sometimes without realising the irony of their situation. Compare two recent NCE cover lines:

  1. “Can anything be done to curb the rising flood threat?” (NCE 23 January) and;
  2. “Where is the engineering judgement? How do engineers make themselves heard?” (NCE 6 February).

And then there is another issue in between that we as a profession are asked to cope with: “Why are engineers too boring for TV?” (NCE 30 January).

That’s the answer to the situation - we have the brains and the answers but we’re just too boring for people to listen to us! Whose fault is that?

Let’s take our cue from politicians and let’s have more rent-a-quote engineers.

  • Brian Clancy (F),


NCE needs more of ‘our’ articles

Simon O’Hana makes a good point well (Letters last week). In the same issue there is an article by MP Ian Liddell-Grainger; getting non-civil engineers to write for NCE appears to be a regular feature.

Yet there are plenty of civil engineers who have both relevant views and technical knowledge to be able to write lucidly on a variety of current topics.

If we want the voice of civil engineering to be heard more widely, then perhaps a good starting place is NCE?

Articles might then be taken up by the national press and television.

This would raise the profile of civil engineers and provide role models for students at school to which to aspire.

  • Professor Lewis Lesley, 30 Moss Lane, Liverpool L9 8AJ
  • Editor’s note: Absolutely. While we are actively seeking out the views of wider opinion-formers and decision makers we are also very keen to publish strong, well-reasoned opinions from civil engineers. Just get in touch! Email with your pitch.


Why Bernard Ingham is so wrong

It’s rare that I am so angered by an article that I feel the need to respond immediately but Sir Bernard Ingham’s piece on energy policy needed rebutting (NCE 30 January).

To start with, let’s identify some common ground: it looks like we agree that current energy policy is a bit of a mess and that nuclear power can play a major role in the transformation to a low carbon energy sector.

However, to use Sir Bernard’s words, let’s start from first principles. The evidence that manmade climate change is occurring is not weak, it’s overwhelming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conservatively states that anthropogenic climate change is happening with 95% confidence. Similarly 97% of peer reviewed scientific journals between 1991 and 2011 support this stance.

Ingham then disputes that solar and wind power are low carbon energy sources because they require additional back-up supply to cope with intermittency of supply. All forms of energy require some level of back up.
He then excels himself with the assertion that wind and solar power are “the most inefficient and expensive forms of power generation”.

Let’s ignore the fact that the “fuel” is abundant and free so the term efficiency is a complete red herring. By 2018 the Contract for Difference strike price for onshore wind and solar power, which guarantees support for 15 years, will be £90/MWh and £100/MWh respectively whereas EdF has been granted a strike price of £92.50/MWh for 30 years for its nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point. Onshore wind power is now more cost effective than nuclear power.

  • Robert Mattholie,

Readers' comments (1)

  • We have all been in awe of the destructive power of the sea over the past few weeks and our inability maintain our infrastructure until the storms abate.
    We have decided to site our power stations offshore in the same environment. There will be no access to the structures in windy weather for maintenance and repair unlike warm turbine halls where work is 24/7

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